An interdisciplinary approach to sustainable PPE

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
United under the Sustainability Incubator Fund, researchers strategize sustainable sourcing solution for crises at the local and global level.

Photo of eye protection sitting on a face mask

In times of crisis, cost and speed of procurement take precedence over the environmental and human health impacts of essential items like PPE. With their forthcoming strategy suggestions, the team hopes to change that.

“Crisis moments can be the best time for collective trust building,” says Jarrod Goentzel, principal research scientist and lecturer for the Center for Transportation and Logistics (CTL) and director of the MIT Humanitarian Supply Chain Lab. “People’s minds are open in unique ways during crisis, so it’s a good time to shape our mindset for moving forward.”

Goentzel is referring to the double crisis that struck the United States earlier this year: the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage. In response, MIT was agile – collecting, fundraising, and facilitating the purchase of PPE donations (i.e., gloves, face masks, face coverings, gowns, face shields, sanitizing wipes) for front-line workers at MIT and beyond. Now, as campus repopulates with a percentage of students, staff, faculty, and researchers, Goentzel is part of an interdisciplinary research team convened by the MIT Office of Sustainability (MITOS) to “shape mindsets” and identify sustainable procurement and sourcing strategies for PPE going forward.

The team was brought together as part of the newest campus-as-a-test bed research project through the Campus Sustainability Incubator Fund, administered by MITOS, which seeks to enable MIT community members to use the campus itself for research in sustainable operations, management, and design. By testing ideas on campus, the project uniquely connects researchers and operational staff, allowing for immediate feedback and application of findings at MIT.

“It has been immensely valuable to have the incredible response, support, and partnership of MIT’s research community during this time of crisis,” says Christina Lo, director of strategic sourcing and contracts in the Office of the Vice President for Finance (VPF). “The work of the cross functional PPE donation team led by [Director of Institute for Medical Engineering and Science Edward J. Poitras Professor in Medical Engineering and Science] Elazer Edelman was the impetus that helped kick off a timely decision to centrally source, procure, and provide PPE and other essential supplies to our entire campus community,” Lo explains.

That partnership quickly connected Lo and VPF with the Sustainability Incubator Fund team, who began offering data-driven approaches for strategically securing and distributing products needed by the MIT community. “By sharing knowledge, information and data, we have established a collaborative framework that we hope will continue beyond this current crisis. By bringing together dedicated individuals and experts from across our administrative and research units, we are building community to better serve our community,” she adds.

This operational/research partnership has also allowed the team to work across different scales and time frames. “The beginning of this idea was ‘What are the challenges MIT is going to face due to Covid-19?’ There is the reopening of campus in the near term, but in the long term we need to look at the sustainability dimensions more broadly,” says MIT Sloan School of Management visiting Associate Professor Valerie Karplus, also an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University since September. She, along with Goentzel and CTL Research Scientist and Director of MIT Sustainable Supply Chains Alexis Bateman; graduate research assistant Molly McGuigan; Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) PhD candidate Mandy Wu; master of applied science in supply chain management students Song Gao and Kelly Sorel; and MITOS faculty fellow and Concrete Sustainability Hub Executive Director Jeremy Gregory round out the research team.

The challenge the team faces is common: In times of crisis, cost and speed of procurement take precedence over the environmental and human health impacts of essential items like PPE. With their forthcoming strategy suggestions, the team hopes to change that. “The real opportunity coming out of this is that by doing all this pre-work, when we go into another emergency, the sustainability impact of a product can be considered a priority without affecting performance,” explains McGuigan.

McGuigan, like the rest of the team, is uniquely skilled at addressing issues related to PPE – her research has focused on supply chains, and as an Army service member she worked on PPE sourcing in Liberia during the Ebola outbreak. Goentzel also supported PPE procurement during that outbreak and, along with Bateman, was most recently focused on supply chains impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Karplus, meanwhile, has been active in MIT working groups for both PPE donations and policy.

“One of the strengths of MITOS is the ability to work with partners across campus in sourcing sustainability solutions. Because of this, we can see opportunities for collaboration that might be missed. This was a great opportunity to connect three distinct research groups that consider PPE supply chain to distribution to disposal and pair them with operational partners to develop a baseline understanding and future sustainability solution for MIT. Ultimately, we will share their findings to inform similar PPE procurement to disposal at other campuses,” says Director of Sustainability Julie Newman.

While the team works to identify and craft a strategy for future sustainable PPE procurement policies, they continue to offer real-time feedback and insight to the operational side of MIT. Working with procurement, facilities, and maintenance, the team has applied insights to the newly established MIT Covid-19 Store, a centralized database that allows departments, labs, and centers (DLCs) to order and receive the PPE they need to maintain their operations safely from within MIT. As DLCs request supplies, the team is carefully tracking data, forecasting, and working to generate suggested amounts to help purchasers – many of whom never purchased PPE before – make decisions. “Everyone in procurement has been working at lightning speed to get everything as fast as possible. But we’re able to do analysis for them and to feed that back into the Covid-19 Store to say ‘Do we have enough?’ ‘What projects should we be focused on?'” explains McGuigan.

This process of helping DLCs identify how much PPE they need, the team hopes, will impact behavior as well. “Some of this process is about building trust. It’s designed so that everyone is going through this similar process for purchasing PPE, so those buying can believe others are acting a way that is fair and equitable by design,” explains Goentzel, noting that this behavioral approach allows better allocation of scarce resources while avoiding over-ordering and waste.

Gregory is careful to add that one caveat of providing future strategies is that the challenges of behavior go beyond sheer volume: “We can go through a bunch of research and identify the most sustainable options in this space, but there is a whole other challenge around actually getting people to make those selections,” he says. As the team continues their work, the hope is that findings from this research and the tests in practice will be used to inform decisions on campus as well as far beyond, offering insight to government and institutions at all levels.

The research in the project is ongoing with a final report delivery date in 2021. Students are encouraged to apply to work with the team and further the research via UROP. For campus inquiries about how to participate in this work and/or general questions about this research project, please contact Alexis Bateman.

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