More than 10 billion pounds of plastic healthcare packaging were placed on the market in 2013, only 14% of which were collected for recycling, according to BCC Research in its Plastics for Healthcare Packaging report. We can do better, can’t we? That’s what the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS; Washington, DC) and the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC; St. Paul, MN) aimed to find out with a multi-hospital plastics recycling project conducted in the Chicago area last year. PLASTICS and various stakeholders recently hosted a webinar to discuss the implementation and outcome of the project.
Hospitals are a rich intersection of rigid and flexible plastics and plastic-based medical devices, said Kim Holmes, Vice President, Sustainability, at PLASTICS, explaining the rationale for the project. In addition to mechanical recycling, the plastic waste was also processed via energy recovery and chemical recycling, provided, respectively, by project stakeholder companies RES Polyflow and Resinate Materials Group.
Several Chicago-area hospitals participated in the program to achieve business viability, as a single hospital does not generate enough bales of plastic waste to make economic sense, noted Peylina Chu of Antea Group, an international engineering and environmental consulting firm.
The demonstration project focused on recycling clean, non-infectious plastic products collected from the clinical care and patient care areas of hospitals. The materials collected for recycling included sterilization wrap made from polypropylene (PP); irrigation bottles made from PP as well as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE); basins, pitchers and trays made from PP, HDPE, polystyrene and PET; single-barrier packaging made from Tyvek; and flexible clear PE film packaging. An immediate challenge surfaced in terms of sorting the materials.
It’s not always apparent to consumers how to properly sort recyclable materials; in an intense hospital environment, it is even more problematic. “Recycling is not perceived to be at the same level as saving lives,” wryly noted Chris Rogers, also from the Antea Group. Making decisions as to which items go where pales in comparison, he added. And that, of course, creates an additional challenge when it comes to transferring the materials to a recycler and processing them.
With that in mind, Chu and Rogers offered a number of takeaways during the webcast:
- Keep it simple—start with a few items and gradually add other materials. Sterilization wrap, aka blue wrap, is the highest volume recyclable material generated in healthcare settings. It consists of readily recyclable high-quality polypropylene appropriate as a substitute or supplement for virgin resins in product manufacturing.
- Champions are critical and behavior change can take time.
- Understand the challenges of extracting, sorting and logistics.
- Understand the economics: The value of the recycled materials was not sufficient to offset costs to recyclers in the current economic environment. Of course, that can change under different economic cycles.
- True “circular solutions” require participation from all stakeholders in the value chain.
Two alternative approaches to mechanical recycling were profiled during the webcast, each of which had some degree of success in this particular project.
Micheal Dungan of RES Polyflow described his company’s mission as “producing petroleum blend stocks from recycled plastic,” a complement to recycling and not a replacement, he stressed. Energy recovery systems that convert mixed polymer waste to fuels and petrochemicals is not theoretical any longer, he said. The demonstration project confirmed that non-recycled, non-pathogenic plastic generated in clinical areas of a healthcare facility are suitable for conversion to petroleum-based products via the RES Polyflow process, said Dungan.
The company will break ground on a facility in northeast Indiana this year, which Dungan said would be fully operational by 2018.
Rick Tabor, Chief Technology Officer at Resinate Materials Group, also saw value in the project’s findings. Resinate’s proprietary chemistry uses post-consumer and post-industrial recycled content to produce high-performance polyols for coating, adhesive, sealant and elastomer applications. It found that recycled medical PETG packaging would be a useful raw material in its proprietary Recyclosis process for various polyurethane applications. There may also be an opportunity to process recycled PETG mixtures with recycled PET, offering the possibility for mixed stream collection, Tabor added.
In summary, the project was perhaps most valuable in identifying the many challenges involved in healthcare-related recycling initiatives, and finding avenues for integrating healthcare plastics more fully into a “make-use-return” economy.
The full report is available as a free download from the HPRC website.