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Goal is to source PET from plastic bottles for manufacturing of medical-grade gowns along localized supply chains in Sub-Saharan Africa.



The European Center for Disease Control estimates that healthcare workers need 14 to 24 fresh sets of personal protective equipment every day of the pandemic to operate safely. The World Health Organization has concluded that 89 million facemasks, 76 million pairs of examination gloves, and 1.6 million pairs of eye protection are needed to adequately protect the world’s healthcare workers for every month the pandemic continues. As need has skyrocketed, so have prices: the wholesale cost of masks is now six times higher than pre-pandemic prices, and medical gowns now cost more than double their normal price.


Amid the global scramble for medical supplies, impoverished African nations are at a clear disadvantage. As the world’s next predicted epicenter, the lack of PPE could have a catastrophic effect1. With just 1.3 healthcare personnel for every 1000 people, African physicians are responsible for 20 times as many people as physicians in the United States. Recent shortages of PPE have left these doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers at a high risk for exposure and infection by COVID-19. Africa cannot afford to leave its frontline medical workers unprotected.


Many businesses, from multinational corporations to fledgling startups, are now using their manufacturing capabilities to produce additional PPE. Personal 3D printers are being used to produce face shields, and public health campaigns encourage individuals to make masks from t-shirts and scarves for whenever they go out. Some protection is better than none at all, but for healthcare workers at increased risk for both aerosol transmission and exposure to high viral loads, homemade and alternative PPE is not good enough. Even if alternatives work 9 times out of 10, healthcare personnel are being exposed hundreds of times a day. Doctors, nurses, and caregivers need equipment designed to prevent viral transmission, and it needs to be accessible without direct competition from more developed countries.

Our Solution:

The leading contributor of plastic waste in African landfills is single-use plastic drinking bottles made of Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). The mechanical strength, chemical stability, and fluid resistance that have made the polymer a popular choice for beverage companies has also made it a standard material for the production of medical-grade gowns. The same polyethylene plastic in disposable bottles is used by companies like Thomas Scientific and Grainger Industrial Supply to produce medical barrier gowns which have passed synthetic blood penetration (ASTM F1670) and viral penetration (ASTM F1671) standards set by the United States Center for Disease Control. While multinational medical supply manufacturing companies are fighting to source unprecedented amounts of virgin medical-grade plastics, hundreds of millions of tons of PET sits in landfills as pollution. Our proposal seeks to utilize this waste as a resource to produce liquid impervious, medical grade protective gowns.

Plastic bottles are already being sourced from landfills and traded through Africa’s substantial informal economy or sold to NGO/state-sponsored buy-back centers. The initiative will be launched through strategic partnerships with well-established waste trading collectives. In Nairobi, Kenya, Dandora Hip Hop City—a community center for young people to gather and engage through modern dance—has a plastic bottle bank that draws in regional collectors with the opportunity to trade kilos of plastic bottles for cooking oil, flour, and vegetables. Traders can also be reached directly through the Gwandenyochi Collective in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In South Africa, collectors can be reached through a network of PET buy-back centers sponsored by the Coca-Cola Corporation. Cities in Tanzania, Ghana, and Nigeria are compelling options for further expansion due to the rapidly growing waste collection practices spurred by recent pilot launches of buy-back centers sponsored by Coca-Cola Company’s World Without Waste Project.

Waste collectors will turn in plastic bottles to participating buy-back centers in return for anything from food essentials to cooking fuel to small monetary sums. The plastic will be transported to local plants with plastic recycling machinery, where the plastic will be chipped, chemically treated, melted, and reformed into film sheets. Previous attempts to manufacture PPE within Africa have been severely limited by the need to obtain starting materials through importation. Our solution seeks to address this limitation by introducing a means to produce these materials locally.

PET is categorized as a thermopolymer due to its high degree of both malleability and ductility at relatively low temperature, allowing it to be molded and stretched easily. Industrial facilities belonging to Coba Impact Manufacturing and Roha Pack PLC in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia are already equipped for the sterilization, heat compression, and thermo-formation of non-virgin PET into bottle/soda litre preforms. The Polyethylene Terephthalate Recycling Company (PETCO) has established a network of over 400 PET drop-off sites in Kenya and South Africa with affiliated industrial recycling facilities designed to carry out the same process. All of these processing plants have the crucial chemical manufacturing capabilities necessary for the thermo-formation process. Rather than molding the softened plastic into new bottles, it will be rolled into a thin film with industrial sheet rolling machinery provided through our initiative. Note that while these facilities are the most favorable starting options due to their strong histories of community engagement, any local recycling facility with the capability to manufacture preforms could carry out this step in the process.


Finally, the polyethylene “fabric” will be transported to local apparel manufacturers, many of which are not currently functioning at their maximum production capacity. Once sewing machines are retooled with the proper extra-strength needles, these apparel manufacturers will be able to sew the sheets into finished gowns for distribution to medical and essential personnel.


Implementation and Long Term Effects:


Our strategy to repurpose and adapt economic systems and infrastructure that already exist in our target regions means that our solution can be implemented quickly and inexpensively. Among efforts to find alternatives for the production of PPE during the pandemic, our solution stands apart because it uses materials that are actually rated for viral transmission. Beyond the protection of Africa’s healthcare workers, this project will help to create income opportunities for thousands of African plastic waste collectors and textile workers that have lost work due to the pandemic. Throughout the pandemic and after, the proposed infrastructure and supply chain developments could save hundreds of thousands of tons of the more than 600 billion PET plastic bottles produced and distributed yearly from landfills and our oceans.

Who will take these actions?

Our proposal is in collaboration with Zicklin Center for Business Ethics at the Wharton School, the World Bank Group, and United Nations Global Compact through the Ideas4Action COVID-19 in Africa Challenge.  Implementation of overseas economic infrastructure and on-the-ground retooling efforts where necessary will be carried out with the assistance of the World Bank through previously established relationships with the waste collection, recycling, and clothing manufacturing industries in Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa.  Prior to overseas rollout, we would like to work with MIT’s fabric hub to maximize the efficiency of the fabrication process as well as standardize the process to ensure the final product meets viral penetration standards.  Both of the authors have significant experience in polymer chemistry research which will facilitate fabrication research/collaboration. 

What are the projected costs?

We expect total funds for the chemical treatment and fabrication development process to amount to between $30,000 - $35,000.  We anticipate requiring an additional $10,000 to facilitate the logistics of our collaboration with the MIT fabric hub.  Funds associated with the overseas aspects of the project would be subject to the procedures and discretion of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. 


Fabrication research: 3-4 months to alter the current standard thermo-formation process to produce a thin film sheet as opposed to plastic bottle pre-forms, test the process on a variety of plastic gradations, and optimize the temperature conditions for mass production in our target regions

Overseas implementation: 3-5 months--With the assistance of the World Bank, Hela Clothing in Kenya transitioned from a clothing factory to surgical mask production is less than 4 months. 

Production  Distribution: we estimate a manufacturing cycle time of 4 weeks to turn collected bottles into gowns ready for distribution to local medical facilities. 

About the author(s)

Katelynn Salmon is a sophomore at Rice University in Houston, TX studying statistics and Asian Studies.  Her interest in practical innovation has led her to the Intel International Science Fair 2016-2019 with a grand award in the Embedded Systems category, nominations to the National Young Inventor’s Hall of Fame and Young Edison Award, 2nd place in the University of Pennsylvania’s largest entrepreneurship pitch competition, and co-authorship on a paper published in the Journal of Fluorine Chemistry 2019.  In her free time, Katelynn enjoys playing with her dog, yoga, eating ice cream sandwiches, and visiting new cities. 

Moses Zeidan is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia studying Bioengineering, Chemistry, and Spanish.   Moses has found his passion enacting real world change with the help of discoveries at the intersection of engineering and medicine.   As a student researcher at the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine and President of the University of Pennsylvania’s Engineers without Border, Moses enjoys bridging the gap to bring innovations from the lab to the people they are designed to serve.  Off campus, Moses spends his time reading, playing the piano, and traveling.  

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