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The Case for Reusable PPE

Disposable means waste. Reusable PPE looks like an environmental win.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a number of innovative solutions to keep practitioners safe, but supply shortages and cost concerns have prompted providers and suppliers to turn to old-school methods, including reusable personal protective equipment. 

Some background: As the pandemic took hold, PPE was suddenly in high demand and price gouging became an issue. Manufacturers of disposable equipment are based largely in China and India, which were dealing with their own economic and health issues. By early spring, supply lines were cut off. Suddenly, reusable PPE became the alternative protection gear. “Studies show that reusable items are better for the environment, reduce solid waste generation, energy, water use and cut greenhouse gas emissions,” writes Dr. Murray Cohen,  a now retired infectious disease epidemiologist.

Here’s where it gets good, experts say. Although most disposable PPE comes from abroad, the United States still has a relatively robust textile industry. This means that moving to reusable isolation barrier gowns, surgical gowns, scrub suits, and cubicle curtains could provide jobs and remove dependence on foreign supply chains and the risks entailed with international business. In Fort Worth, Dickies shifted its production to make 3.4 million reusable medical gowns as the demand for PPE grew.

“Reusable personal protective equipment, scrubs, patient gowns and other reusable healthcare garments have already proven safe and effective and more sustainable than disposable products,” writes Cohen, who notes that this equipment can be used 80 to 100 times rather than just once. “The utilization of reusable PPEs, once the industry standard, needs to be greatly expanded to prevent the types of shortages being experienced now at hospitals nationwide.”

Alan Bonds is the general manager of the North Texas Health Care Laundry, which is a nonprofit cooperative owned by Baylor Scott & White Health, Texas Health Resources, and Methodist Health that launders linens, scrubs, and gowns for 50 hospitals and 500 clinics in North Texas. The nonprofit employs 300 people and processes about 1 million pounds of hospital laundry a week. When the pandemic began to grow, he placed orders for more reusable gowns and scrubs to be ready for what he thought was coming. 

Bonds has seen overall business drop-off 30-50 percent as hospitals had fewer and fewer patients in beds during the pandemic, but there has been an increase in laundering services required for scrubs and isolation gowns as facilities take more precautions. When the pandemic began, the service increased from laundering 45,000 to 65,000 scrub pieces a week, and Bonds expects the number of scrubs and gowns laundered to double when newly-ordered reusable PPE comes in. “The supply chains on the hospital side will be able to breathe a little easier,” he says.  

Healthcare laundry services already meet the standard to disinfect and decontaminate infectious diseases that are more deadly and contagious than COVID-19, so nothing about the cleaning need to be changed as long as regulations are followed. The Textile Rental Services Organization has a Hygienically Clean certification to recognize laundries whose processes can stand up to inspection and microbial testing. Laundries followed these processes before the pandemic when cleaning hospital linens, and are prepared to treat COVID-19 laundry as well, Bonds says. 

As more hospitals move to reusable PPE to avoid shortages, there may be economic and environmental benefits, but making sure hospitals are prepared for a second wave is reason enough to plan ahead. “The supply chains worldwide were caught off guard, who knew this was going to happen?” Bonds says. “Everyone is trying to be prepared so that next time this happens we are not caught off guard.” 

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