Among COVID’s harsh disruptions, it has contributed to a colossal medical waste problem, with implications for human and environmental health. By 2020 the pandemic had increased medical waste in health care facilities by up to tenfold, according to World Health Organization (WHO) Technical Officer Maggie Montgomery, as reported in Reuters. Developing countries are hit hardest, roughly two-thirds of them have no systems to safely segregate these amassing, often hazardous materials, resulting in cross contamination and disease. Much of it is landfilled, or it’s burned, generating toxic pollutants.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) make up a large portion of these throwaways worldwide—gowns, gloves, masks, and coveralls (full body suits). A single health care worker dons, disposes of, then slips on new garments multiple times throughout one day and night, and may generate up to 55 pounds of PPE waste in that time.
Medical facilities tossed about 89 million masks alone in one month in 2020, WHO reported. The United Nations agency, charged with promoting health globally, has called for new ways to make and dispose of these essential medical products, including a recommendation for reusable and recyclable PPE.
But this will be a daunting task. It commands a major overhaul of a system that relies heavily on disposables to help protect workers and patients from bacteria and viruses in a fast-moving environment where sterile supplies must be readily available, always. MEDU, a Mexican startup, is among companies working to help address the issues.
“PPE is protective, but it’s become less sustainable over the years,” says Tamy Chayo, CEO and founder of MEDU. The company makes reusable washable gowns, full body suits, and masks. Chayo launched the small company in the height of COVID, in response to two concerns: “We saw a problem during the pandemic as far as protection of people, and we also saw a problem on the sustainability side. So, we combined our focus to address both: to protect health care workers and patients and do this in a way where we can reduce carbon footprint of PPE,” she says.
She has seen firsthand the pandemic at its worst, coming from a family of doctors and nurses in a country with one of the highest death rates from COVID among medical professionals.
“Seeing this in my home, I wanted to do something for my family and health care workers of Mexico,” says Chayo, who left behind her work studying ways to extract compounds from plants to make pharmaceuticals to launch MEDU.
Through her new focus, she has developed a technical fabric with a coating that encapsulates bacteria and viruses, depriving them of oxygen and destroying them.
The technology meets the guidelines of the Commission for Protection against Sanitary Risks (COFEPRIS), a federal agency that regulates medical equipment and supplies in Mexico. The fabric is also approved by the Federal Drug Administration, though MEDU awaits approval of the final products to be manufactured with the material.
MEDU gowns and coveralls can be cleaned with water and soap and used for up to 50 washes without compromising their level of protection. Health care workers can reenter certain hospital zones and certain patients’ rooms several times wearing the same gown, so they can be worn more than 400 times.
Life cycle analysis shows that during its entire life one MEDU PPE garment can save up to 55 pounds of waste and about .133 gallons of water, Chayo says.
Agustín Mendoza Gutiérrez, a certified respiratory therapist in Mexico City, sees about 30 patients per day. He was disposing gowns after each time he entered a patient’s room, which he typically does four to six times per patient per shift.
That he wouldn’t have to redress each time he entered an area or patient room was among reasons he decided to try the MEDU gowns.
Additionally he says, “It’s economical. As it is a fully washable gown, the savings are huge. And it guarantees my own safety due to the gown’s effective materials and helps with the protocol to reduce the risk of contagion from PPE replacements.”
Protocol impacting the amount and type of PPE a practitioner wears depends on factors such as the area of the hospital where it is worn.
In isolation zones, requiring the highest level of protection, health care workers need to wear coveralls that cover their heads, face, and body with boots and up to four layers of gloves.
“Depending on the zone and waste classification you will also have separation of waste [in regulated parts of the world such as North America and Europe]. Pretreatment means more handling steps and potentially more cross contamination and pollution if not done properly,” Chayo says; problems MEDU’s technology helps mitigate.
There are budget considerations too.
Hospital gowns alone can be 30 to 40 percent of a facility’s budget. These operations can realize about 80 percent cost savings switching to MEDU’s alternative, says Chayo, who raised $40,000 through crowdfunding to donate her products to hospitals to see how they worked out and determine how to make improvements.
Only 23-years old, her ideas earned her one of six spots in a Washington, DC-based accelerator to advance social business models, and drew the attention of Hillary Clinton who learned of these entrepreneurs’ work and came out to speak to them.
The MEDU team has gone on to develop software to track usage of its PPE in real time.
“What we see with our products is even if health care workers can use a a particular PPE 50 times, they may throw it away at 40 uses. We wanted to be sure they are used as intended to get maximum usage, be protective, and save money.”
While an algorithm provides intel around where and how gowns are used, among metrics, MEDU is now working to integrate artificial intelligence (AI) to further optimize the inventory management process and help identify new ways to use the PPE, for both sustainability and economic benefits.
Says Chayo: “I think we are in a great moment to make a change for more sustainability. During the pandemic, we saw if we are not sustainable the consequences will be worse. We can do better at taking care of ourselves and the earth. We need to do both.”
Currently MEDU products are in 35 hospitals in Mexico and Chayo has letters of intent from 15 hospitals in the U.S, with the goal to expand in the U.S. in 2023 and move into Europe in 2024.