The Department of Health and Social Care is set to pay up to £35m to dispose of unusable PPE, after admitting it expected to burn nearly 600 lorry-loads of equipment a month.
Following intense criticism over plans to send “mountains” of personal protective equipment bought during the pandemic to the incinerator, CSW can reveal the department has agreed to pay two waste companies up to £17.5m apiece for PPE “recycling and recovery services”.
Veolia UK and SUEZ Recycling and Recovery UK have been tasked with “managing the whole waste management process to assess, collect, handle and dispose of” equipment that DHSC no longer wants.
The two “lead waste partners” are each set to bank at least £11.7m destroying unusable PPE over the next two years – rising to £17.5m if the contracts are extended for a third year.
The contracts were awarded at the end of March, after DHSC admitted it was expecting to burn 15,000 pallets of equipment – equivalent to 576 lorry-loads – per month.
At last count, seven billion units of PPE have been marked as “do not supply” to the NHS after going through compliance checks – amounting to nearly one in five items bought as part of the pandemic response. Of that figure, 1.2 billion items are “wastage” – meaning they cannot be used in any setting.
Jonathan Marron, director general of the department's Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, told MPs on the Public Accounts Committee last month that while efforts were being made to recycle unusable equipment where possible, "more traditional waste disposal methods" would also be needed.
The two companies will assess whether equipment DHSC plans to dispose of can be recycled and present the department with options.
Last week, health minister Edward Argar said the department wanted to “accelerate the speed” of its disposal programme, “particularly for stock that is likely to become out-of-date before it is ever used and is unsuitable for recycling” to cut down on storage costs – which currently stand at £2.75 per pallet per week.
Argar said the department would work with the two waste companies to consider options, including "energy from waste" processes – incineration.
He said while DHSC's priority is to "sell, donate, repurpose or recycle wherever we can", in many instances this will not be possible.
"The majority of PPE items are designed to be single use and disposed of as medical waste and so are often made up of complex chains of polymers. These items cannot be broken down for recycling. As a result, many of the products we hold are not able to be fully recycled and around half are completely non-recyclable," he said.
The department must therefore take a "realistic, pragmatic approach to managing stock and putting in place solutions that make sense economically and environmentally", he added.
“Environmental concerns will be key, and we will be taking into consideration the government’s waste hierarchy, prioritising recycling, and then energy from waste for that proportion of stock which we hold that cannot be recycled."
The department has also agreed to pay £122,976 to a third company, Ramco UK, for help auctioning off unused PPE stock DHSC bought in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Individuals and companies will be able to bid for the leftover equipment.
In his statement, Argar said the company had so far sold 330 million masks to two private companies through a separate process, and had other deals in the pipeline.
DHSC is also looking to prolong the shelf life of PPE that has expired in a bid to cut down on waste. It recently appointed a lab to carry out tests on medical-grade face masks and visors to see whether use-by dates can be extended.