I9 – Circular Solutions for Medical Plastics: International Problems and Local Fixes

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In January 2018, China banned all imports of recyclable waste from the United States. Now 70 percent of our plastic waste has nowhere to go and waste management companies are desperately searching for solutions. The United States lacks the infrastructure to process/recycle all of the waste it creates, and landfills are approaching capacity at alarming rates. Trade tariffs are being imposed between the United States and several other countries, including China. This will increase the price of imported goods and drive interest in domestically produced goods. Plastic waste has been placed in the national spotlight, as the carcasses of sea animals wash up on our shores with stomachs filled with plastic waste and the Great Pacific Trash Gyre grows and becomes more infamous. Meanwhile, cities across the US are implementing disposable plastic bag bans and driving awareness towards reusable alternatives. It is becoming clear that consumers are looking for service providers that are environmental stewards, and healthcare providers are looking for ways to convey these values to patients.

The healthcare sector creates an enormous amount of plastic waste. It is estimated that nearly 250 million lbs of sterilization wrap is disposed of each year in the united states. Local circular economy solutions exist but implementation requires the participation of all stakeholders. Being a systemic issue, the solution resides not only in trying to manage waste, but in addressing the entire life cycle of the products that generate waste, and the manufacturers that produce it. It is imperative that decision-makers in healthcare begin, or continue to cultivate demand for circular economy products made from the waste generated at their facilities.

Implementing sterilization wrap and flexible OR plastics recycling programs is the necessary precursor to tackling medical plastics. Evaluating the readiness of your hospital to create a program is the first step. Key stakeholders such as; department chairs, green teams, nurse champions, and environmental services must be identified and willing to commit for programs to be successful. Operating room staff can easily be trained to identify recyclable materials and segregate them pre-incision to ensure the safety of those handling materials downstream. Waste haulers can be engaged, as well as other service providers such as confidential document shredders can backhaul and aggregate medical plastics to aid in the flow of materials downstream. Common limitations and obstacles such as limited space and lack of baling capability can be addressed and overcome.

While the pricing premium of EPP products is currently discouraging to mass adoption, we are approaching a circumstance where the economic incentive will rise. If hospitals don’t create demand for EPP products made from PCR medical plastics, it will erode the validity of collection for reprocessing. When coupled with forecasts of dramatically increasing landfilling costs, this presents an economic incentive to support recycling efforts and ensure that there will be economically viable alternatives to landfilling and the impending expenses that landfilling all that material at inflated future rates would imply.

Several dedicated parties are working towards local circular economies around medical plastics and individual hospitals can help by:

  • Cultivating demand for EPP products, especially ones that decrease the waste burden by being made from medical plastics.
  • Holding manufacturers accountable for the waste that their products produce, and demanding that they support recycling and recovery efforts.
  • Supporting the development of domestic recycling infrastructure through driving demand.
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