Protecting our environment

The last year or two have been noticeable for the clamour of voices protesting, in most cases not inappropriately, about the precarious state of the global environment. After protests and condemnation of major polluters and eventual engagement of the UN government and, through COP26, most other governments, perhaps we are beginning to sow the seeds of change.

We can do so much in our own lives. Turning down the central heating by a degree or two and avoiding unnecessary plastic waste are things we can all do.

What else might we do in our personal and professional lives? With major concerns about coronavirus (COVID-19) infections, the use of alcohol hand gels has escalated dramatically. Dispensers are everywhere and there is a key measure to protect health and prevent infection that is of course no bad thing.

In healthcare, we use even more alcohol hand rub but not always for environmentally sound reasons. Most frontline healthcare professionals will sanitise their hands probably 10 or 20 times a day, the others will need coercion to do this just once, and to do it properly. It’s very obvious in the healthcare sector that alcohol hand rub is frequently used as a convenient alternative to Southern water in circumstances where a few seconds might be saved but it is easier than taking a few extra steps to the wash hand basin. I’m not sure that that is a good enough reason to choose one process over another.

COVID-19 precautions have encouraged many many organisations to supply alcohol hand dispensers for the staff and others. Thinking in the round about the environmental impact of this results in some alarming statistics. The manufacture of so much alcohol hand rub has an adverse environmental impact. Hand rub is always packaged in plastic. As we use it concentrations of alcohol from 60 to 85% by volume evaporate quickly into the atmosphere. And when emptied we throw away the plastic container, not infrequently as a non-recyclable.

The environmental impact of this is massive but it is very much a plus point the hands are quickly and effectively sanitised protecting all of us from the impact of an avoidable infection. Now think globally. Do the environmental impact of a small squirt of alcohol hand gel maybe trivial globally the volumes of product which used almost incalculable. It all ends up, as it is designed to do, in the atmosphere.

Without seeking to claim any particular environmental credentials it is clear that we should rethink the use of alcohol hand rub. Not to eliminate it where is potential benefit is clear that to limit it to use wherever possible. This might include substitution of alcohol free products of which there are plenty on the market, and returning to good old soap  and water.

We should all be doing our bit, though my curmudgeonly self is in no doubt protests of the kind of seen recently is not the way forward. We can do is put this issue on the table, debate it and the implications of change both positive and negative and having assessed global volumes of alcohol hand rub which are used in order to consider the environmental and atmospheric burdens of evaporated alcohol think carefully about what the next step should be.

Ian Blenkharn

4 November 2021



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