Small Erie molder makes big impact on healthcare recycling

American hospitals generate more than 400,000 tons of plastic and other packaging waste every year, and the percentage recycled is close to zero.

Kurt Duska is leading technical efforts in a powerhouse recycling coalition.

That's about to change, in part because of a chance conversation an Erie, PA injection molder had on an airplane with a medical manufacturer. "She told me she wished more of the products they made could be recycled," Kurt Duska, president of Engineered Plastics Inc. and EPI Recycling Solutions said in an interview with PlasticsToday.

Two years ago Duska joined with officials from Beckton, Dickinson and Co.; Cardinal Health; DuPont; Hospira, Johnson & Johnson; Kimberley Clark; and Waste Management to form the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council . Since the formal launch of HPRC in 2010, six other companies have joined the effort: Eastman Chemical, Covidien, SABIC, Phillips Healthcare, Kimberly-Clark, and Baxter International.

Cleveland Clinic pilot study
The group's goal is to promote recycling of plastics and other materials used in the healthcare field. Duska was the pilot study lead for one of the group's first big accomplishments: an evaluation of recyclability and best practices of pre-patient operating room waste.

The pilot study, conducted with the Cleveland Clinic and Waste Management, indicated that operating room plastics can be economically recycled with less environmental impact than an equivalent amount of virgin plastics. Design guidelines were developed from the study listing suggested do's and don'ts.

Practices to be avoided include:

  • Use of rubber seals on polypropylene saline bottles;
  • Combination of incompatible bioplastics and oil-based plastics in one product;
  • Welding, gluing, or insert molding of two components of unlike plastics in the same part. One example is a polycarbonate handle with an overmolded silicone grip;
  • Paper indicator tape on sterilization wrap; and
  • Paper and film combinations used in packaging.

The design guidelines promote use of  monomaterial structures, chemically compatible materials (e.g., polyolefins) in single devices, and use of breathable plastics as alternatives to paper, such as spunbound polypropylene and nonwoven high density polyethylene (HDPE). The guidelines also suggest minimal use of pigments in healthcare products. Pigments, particularly dark colors, limit re-use options of recycled plastics.

Tyvek may have big role
In one example of a potential change, labels made from a polyolefin fiber called Tyvek made by DuPont would replace paper labels on polyolefin bags, making them easier to recycle. The Tyvek label could be

One of the project's goals is to eliminate packages that use paper and plastics.

recycled with the bag. Tyvek is already used extensively in healthcare applications, and DuPont is studying possible use of Tyvek regrind in other medical applications.

"A lot of the changes that can be made are simple things," says Duska. "For example, a one-liter polypropylene irrigation bottle has a paper label. If we can switch that to a PP label, it dramatically improves the potential to recycle that product." Soda bottles have already gone through a similar design transformation to materials that can be recycled together.

EPI Recycling has worked with faculty and students at the Penn State Behrend campus in Erie to study

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