Plastic waste in the healthcare sector: finding solutions

Plastics have long been essential to modern healthcare and now Covid-19 has exacerbated the already major problem of how to deal with all medical waste.

According to World Health Organization (WHO), tens of thousands of tonnes of additional medical waste have been generated by the Covid-19 response, much of which contains single-use plastic. The increasing production of personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as test kits and vaccine packaging and containers, has put additional pressure on medical waste management systems. But what is the solution, when saving lives must be paramount?

The Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC) works tirelessly to improve the recyclability of plastic products and packaging in the healthcare sector. With members from the manufacturing, healthcare and recycling sectors, it engages in pioneering projects designed to help boost plastic recycling in hospitals.

According to communications director Alison Bryant, the HPRC is also working to implement a circular model, in which healthcare plastic waste can be used to create new healthcare packaging and products. She observed:

“Modern healthcare would not be possible without the use of plastic. It has proven to be one of the few versatile materials able to adapt to the dynamic nature of the healthcare industry, providing benefits such as sterility, quality, durability and most importantly, patient safety. patients and healthcare workers.

However, despite the many benefits, single-use plastics and packaging in healthcare also have unintended environmental consequences, namely the waste they create.

Identify barriers to recycling

The sectors generating the most plastic waste are operating theatres, outpatient surgery, cardiac catheterization laboratories and interventional radiology, pre and post-anaesthesia, pharmacy and radiology. But why is this waste not recycled?

Pile of medical plastics. (Credit: HPRC)

According to the HPRC, product design features hinder recyclability, hospital staff lack training, and space and infrastructure in hospitals are limited to consolidate recyclable materials. Additionally, the demand and availability of recyclers to collect the materials varies greatly by geography. Alison Bryant said:

“HPRC is unique in its focus on identifying barriers to plastics recycling and developing solutions throughout the value chain. We seek to affect the recycling of plastics from the design and manufacture of healthcare products to the use, disposal and recycling of products. »

The organization researches and evaluates advanced recycling technologies and their suitability for medical plastics. He launched a guide, Hospicycle, to help hospitals navigate the process of activating a plastics recycling program. She added:

“With sustainability becoming a growing priority, healthcare organizations are determined to do more to address this plastic waste challenge.”

Strategic action

A hospital tackling the problem head-on is based in the United States Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), one of Harvard Medical School’s teaching hospitals. Avery Palardy, Sustainability Program Manager, explained:

“As an academic medical center, single-use plastic is part of every element of our operations, from our research labs, cafeterias and kitchens to our ambulatory and patient care. It enters our facilities in the form of secondary and primary packaging as well as some of the equipment and supplies we need in these areas.

Healthcare operating rooms are estimated to generate 20-30% of our total waste, a significant portion of which is plastic.

Plastic sorting bags for operating theatres.  (Credit: HPRC)
Plastic sorting bags for operating theatres. (Credit: HPRC)

But, she continued:

“In healthcare, not all plastics are bad, in many scenarios they are absolutely necessary given their durability, light weight and ability to provide a sterile and safe environment to deliver extraordinary care. to patients. For us, the focus on plastic waste then comes down to identifying opportunities to reduce unnecessary plastic and partnering with the recycling industry to develop the technology to recycle plastics for healthcare. »

The hospital has a Zero Waste goal by 2030 and is already implementing its strategic action plan focusing on redesign and reuse, as well as reduction, recycling, innovation and market development . Examples include assessing opportunities to reduce plastic by switching to alternative reusable or reprocessable products. It has also pursued partnerships with vendors and distributors to ensure they focus on reducing secondary packaging.

She says:

“In the operating rooms, we have a Greening the Operating Room (OR) task force with representatives from anesthesia, perioperative, central treatment, clinical engineering and the post-anesthesia care unit. They are dedicated to the sustainability of our operating rooms, including the unnecessary use of plastic. Their efforts have included identifying processes that lead to unnecessary use of supplies. »

Trays (Credit: HPRC)
Trays (Credit: HPRC)
Sterilization packaging (Credit: HPRC)
Sterilization packaging (Source: HPRC)

The hospital has a Green Labs task force that identifies plastics and lab materials that can be recycled, then expands collections across facilities. She added:

“In addition, they have identified and promoted suppliers who have take-back programs for polystyrene coolers, pipette tip boxes, and other common laboratory plastics that our researchers may use.”

A growing problem

According to Bryant, with sustainability becoming a growing priority, healthcare organizations are determined to do more to address these plastic waste challenges. She pointed out:

“Plastics are an essential part of healthcare and there is a legitimate need for single-use plastics, primarily to prevent infectious disease. But research shows that the use of plastic in healthcare will only continue to grow for the foreseeable future, as global healthcare becomes more complex and urgent.

Asuron packaging (Credit: HPRC)
Asuron packaging (Credit: HPRC)

She added:

“The health sector, as an industry, holds firmly to the philosophy of ‘do no harm’ – it’s about people’s health and healing. So when hospitals send billions of pounds of plastic waste to landfill or incineration, it contradicts the “do no harm” mantra.

Therefore, finding environmentally friendly solutions to the problem of plastic waste has a direct impact on human health – and this is something that HPRC members are committed to advancing, using recycling as a tool important.

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