One Step at a Time

Suppliers explore the possibilities of plastics recycling.

Concerns over infection control have led to safer healthcare practices in recent years, but not without consequences. As more healthcare providers adopt disposable medical products, the risk of diseases such as hepatitis and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome has decreased. The uptake in plastic disposables, however, is taking a toll on the environment, experts note. The global medical plastics market is expected to exceed 10 billion pounds by 2015, according to the online Encyclopedia Britannica.

Identifying barriers
When it comes to tackling plastic waste in the medical industry, the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC) is taking it one step at a time. The organization, formed in 2009, is comprised of eight members representing the healthcare, recycling and waste management industries: Becton Dickinson, Cardinal Health, Dupont, Engineered Plastics, Hospira, Johnson & Johnson, Kimberly Clark and Waste Management. Looking to identify barriers to plastics recycling, HPRC is examining three initiatives designed to facilitate the recycling of certain plastics used in healthcare:

  • Healthcare plastics value chain mapping.
  • Design for recycling guidelines.
  • Pilot study programs.

The first initiative, healthcare plastics value chain mapping, is focused on identifying issues that have prevented plastics recycling. “We need to map the barriers and then [determine what we do] to reduce or limit them. This initiative allows us to define the space in which we want to work,” says Tod Christenson, director of the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council. “The process begins with the design of plastic products.” Council members must look at how plastic products will be used and later disposed of, he notes. For instance, “plastic products made with more than one type of plastic are much more difficult to recycle, as the value of the mixed plastics resin generally has less economic value than more pure, single-type plastic resins. Similarly, plastic products with paper labels or rubber stops disable the value of recycled materials by adding a layer of cost to the processing (possibly requiring some disassembly) or reducing the re-use applications of the recycled material, which may contain intolerable paper, ash or mixed plastics content levels. The value of the recycled material increases with greater consistency in the products material.”

“Within a healthcare facility, support is needed on a number of fronts, including help with the staff’s ability to recognize which products and materials are recyclable,” he continues. “[There needs to be] training and assistance in implementing viable practices that will result in removing and aggregating the desired materials from the existing waste stream. Then we need people who can pick up the recyclable materials and do something with them.” The first initiative is well underway, he adds.

The second initiative – design for recycling guidelines – looks at developing protocols for product and packaging design. “We are looking at how we can work with manufacturers to reduce the design barriers and limitations,” says Christenson. Many vendors have already explored changes, he notes. The Council intends to publish its plans online by early next fall. However, implementing these plans will take time, he adds. The third initiative – conducting pilot studies – will enable HPRC to build a data model to facilitate an economic analysis of plastics recycling, test solutions and provide information to the healthcare facility useful in their implementation of plastics recycling.

Although plastic syringes comprise a huge portion of medical plastics waste, HPRC for now is focusing on non-patient-contact waste materials. “We strictly are looking at plastics packaging and product materials that are pre-patient contact, such as instrument packaging, surgical blue wrap and rinse basins, ” he explains. “Patient contact waste materials are beyond the scope of our focus at this time, as they bring a whole different set of challenges. There are strict regulations around the handling and disposal of these wastes.”

Planning ahead
By the year’s end, HPRC’s goal is to wrap up the mapping initiative, complete its design guidelines and kick off a couple of pilot studies, notes Christenson. “We also are looking to put together an advisory board with three to five healthcare members,” he says.
“Right now, we are still evaluating an economic model to determine the value of recycled plastics and the quality of the resin that comes out (used to develop a new product),” he continues. “We’ve completed some testing of different plastics coming out of hospitals. Our goal is to find a new home for these materials and learn what the economic value of recycled plastics is.
“Single-use plastic medical products continue to go into landfills,” he continues. “Typically, if a hospital system has a recycling program in place, it’s grass roots,” he explains. “But, there is no mature, well-developed practice in the industry.” Not yet.

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