Medical staff prepare to take a COVID-19 tests at a drive through community based assessment center in Christchurch.
FILE - Medical staff prepare to take a COVID-19 tests at a drive through community based assessment center in Christchurch, New Zealand, Aug. 13, 2020.

SYDNEY - Researchers in New Zealand are testing new techniques to find out whether masks and gowns used by health workers as protection against COVID-19 can be decontaminated and safely used again.   

Researchers want to reduce the “mountain” of personal protective equipment, or PPE, that is discarded around the world daily. According to experts in New Zealand, estimates indicate that in China alone, hundreds of thousands of metric tons of PPE are going to the landfill each day.    

FILE - Workers in protective suits walk past the Hankou railway station on the eve of its resuming outbound traffic in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province, April 7, 2020.

Mark Staiger is an associate professor of materials engineering at the University of Canterbury.   

“The amount of waste that is being produced by the pandemic is absolutely huge. It has been estimated that something like 3 million face masks are being used per minute around the world. Other studies have shown that something like 3.5 billion face masks and face shields are being discarded globally every day,” he said. 

FILE - A discarded N95 protective face mask lies amongst other bits of disposed medical waste at a landfill site, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in New Delhi, India, July 22, 2020.

Masks and gowns contain plastics that cannot easily be recycled. Researchers from Canterbury, Otago and Auckland universities are testing a process that would destroy the COVID-19 virus and allow the PPE to be used again.   

The aim is to safely disinfect protective equipment so it can be used by frontline workers. If successful, Staiger says the system could increase the supply of N95 masks, which filter out airborne particles, by 40%.    

“The particular challenge in decontaminating face masks, for example, is making sure that whatever technique you use for killing off the virus does not affect the materials contained within the mask. For example, N95 masks have a special electrostatic layer inside them, which is used for capturing very small particles, and if that layer is damaged by the treatment that you are using or the decontamination treatment that you are using, this would render the mask ineffective and lose its functionality.”    

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said PPE creates a barrier between an individual’s skin, mouth, nose, or eyes and viral and bacterial infections. It is mostly designed to be used only once. 

The New Zealand university study began in 2020. Its final stage is under way, and it is due to finish later this year. 

The research team is also building a mobile disinfection unit that could be transported in shipping containers to other countries.   

New Zealand has an enviable record of containing COVID-19, in large part because it closed its borders to most foreign nationals in March 2020. It has recorded about 2,700 confirmed or probable infections. Twenty-six people have died.