Healthcare plastics recycling project identifies challenges, opportunities

Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council reportMore 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

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