Worldwide, only 14 percent of plastic is collected for recycling, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation publication "The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing Action." In the health care segment, the rate is even lower. The lack of universal standards and a complex value chain have diminished the perception of health care plastics as a viable recycling feedstock. However, for entrepreneurial and innovative recyclers, the health care industry represents one of the last untapped sources of high-quality recyclable plastics.
If you’ve ever spent any time in a hospital, you probably noticed the massive amount of materials being tossed into trash bins. Sterilization wrap, gowns, irrigation bottles, IV bags, basins, pitchers, trays and rigid and flexible packaging materials are, for the most part, used once and then thrown away. According to data as reported in a 2010 article published by Slate, U.S. hospitals generate 6 million tons of waste per year, with plastics accounting for up to one-quarter of that total. Most of that plastic ends up in landfills or in incinerators despite that 85 percent of it is nonhazardous and free from patient contact and contamination.
Understanding the opportunity
Given the large amount of waste they generate, hospitals have a vested interest in recycling. Recycling helps hospitals reduce waste management costs and, in some cases, can even be a source of revenue. They also see recycling programs as enhancing employee engagement, greening the supply chain and reducing the organization’s carbon footprint as part of their overall sustainability goals. By their very nature, hospitals are committed to improving population health in the communities they serve and seek to minimize their environmental impacts by diverting plastic from landfill and incineration. And those hospitals with religious affiliations may see taking care the world as part of their core mission.
Recyclers also stand to reap multiple benefits from recycling health care plastics. In most markets around the country, few (if any) recyclers are working to extract these rich, untapped materials from clinical settings. Because disposal of these materials represents a significant cost to hospitals, a solution that reduces that cost while offering an environmentally responsible alternative to landfill or incineration represents a very desirable alternative to current practices, and hospitals are clamoring for recyclers to partner with.
Health care plastics often are made of high-quality materials, a requirement for use in medical applications, and are designed for extremely specific uses. This results in very little variance in key characteristics, such as melt flow, viscosity and tensile strength, therefore enhancing the properties and value of resins and products manufactured from them. These plastics are generated continuously with very little change in composition over time, meaning they are a reliable, high-quality stream coming from willing and eager providers. The result? A golden opportunity for recyclers with the insight to see the possibilities.
As the health care industry continues to grow alongside an aging population, which recyclers will step up to partner with their local hospital systems to develop the channels, divert the materials and establish new revenue streams? Connecting supply and demand not only helps create a closed-loop system (make, use, return) that achieves better environmental outcomes, but it also makes good business sense.
Busting the myths around health care plastics
To help recyclers embrace the possibilities that plastics from health care settings hold, we examine three popular myths that surround this material.
Myth No. 1: the ick factor. A common misconception about health care plastics is that all of it is inherently dangerous as a result of contact with biohazardous materials, medications and other unsafe materials. In reality, this stream is cleaner than municipal waste—after their single uses, most health care plastics are disposed of before the patient even enters the room. Years ago, postconsumer plastics faced the same myth; milk jugs and soda bottles were thought to be smelly, moldy and full of bacteria from human contact. Yet today, these materials are recycled without another thought. By using proper collection procedures, it’s possible to greatly reduce and even eliminate the potential for contamination. Most hospitals are committed to training their staffs on proper sorting and segregation and are very open to recyclers that are willing to provide feedback and open dialogue to make health care plastic recycling a reality.
“A strong partnership and open communication between hospitals and recyclers are key,” says Dan Constant, president of Sustainable Solutions LLC, Gainesville, Georgia, and a consultant to Halyard Health’s Blue Renew program. “Understanding the importance of training and who is accountable for each step in the process greatly diminishes potential contamination issues.”
Myth No. 2: The quantity isn’t there. While a single hospital may not generate a profitable volume of material for a recycler, many hospitals are part of larger health care systems that are very interested in working together to collect sufficient volumes to make recycling economically viable. Recyclers should look to accumulate material across multiple hospitals, whether by health care system or geography, to achieve desired quantities. Studies such as the one conducted at Stanford Healthcare (See www.hprc.org/stanford-pilot-study.) have demonstrated that the quantity is there—it’s the collection that can be the challenge. However, recyclers and other service providers (document destruction services, paper recyclers, linen companies and sheltered workforce programs, such as those offered by Goodwill) already are transporting materials to and from hospitals and have logistics in place to aggregate the volume needed for a health care plastics recycling program to make good business sense. Working with these vendors to set up a backhaul system can be the key to unlocking a successful collection program at scale.
“Health care plastics are the last large, untapped material stream with great potential for recyclers, compounders and OEMs,” says Robert Render, commercial manager for Ravago Recycling Group. Ravago Manufacturing’s U.S. headquarters are based in Orlando, Florida. “We have to overcome the challenges particular of concentrating volume much like we did with postconsumer collections,” he continues. “It can be done.”
Myth #3: There is no end market. Health care plastics lend themselves to numerous markets. High quality polypropylene (PP) always is in demand with compounders given its relatively high value and universal applications for blending and pelletizing. PP sterilization wrap increasingly is made into numerous finished products, including some that are sold back into hospitals.
“Through Halyard Health’s Blue Renew program, we have created BlueCON Resin, a recycled polypropylene made of 80 percent operating room waste,” says Constant. “With this new resin, we make environmentally preferred products that hospitals use every day, including garbage cans, bedpans and washbasins. Its innovative solutions like this that will go a long way in creating demand for health care plastics.”
Rigid health care plastics, such as pitchers, trays and packaging materials, readily are processed along with other postindustrial sourced materials.
Continuing the conversation
To continue the discussion around how recyclers can unlock the potential of health care plastics, the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC), in conjunction with the Washington- based Plastics Industry Association, is hosting a workshop at the 2017 Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference Wednesday, Oct. 11.
This workshop is designed to help recyclers better understand material types, quality controls and collection logistics for health care plastics and navigating the process of working with hospitals to capitalize on the millions of pounds of clean plastics available for recovery. Workshop registration is free and available at www.eventbrite.com/e/recycler-roundtable-unlocking-the-potential-of-healthcare-plastics-registration-36699799087.
HPRC is a private technical coalition of industry peers across health care, recycling and waste management industries seeking to improve recyclability of plastic products within health care. HPRC members include Baxter, BD, Cardinal Health, DuPont, Eastman Chemical Co., Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic, Nelipak Healthcare Packaging and Ravago Recycling Group.