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Identifying Recycling and Circularity Opportunities for Healthcare Plastics

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The Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council’s mission is to ensure that all healthcare plastics are safely and effectively recycled and widely accepted as a valuable resource. Executive Director Peylina Chu led a panel discussion during Virtual Engineering Week on recycling opportunities and challenges.

The global business market for healthcare plastics is almost 15 billion pounds today and is projected to grow 5% year over year to reach 18 billion pounds in 2025, explained Peylina Chu, executive director for the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC), during the Virtual Engineering Week panel discussion, "Recycling & Circularity in Healthcare Plastics." HPRC seeks to improve the recyclability of those healthcare plastic products.

Chu discussed recycling challenges and opportunities with industry experts Nick Packet, MD&M specialist and packaging engineer at DuPont, and Bob Render, business development manager for sustainability at Ravago Recycling Group. The panel also discussed the challenges and opportunities in healthcare plastics recycling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chu began the session by explaining that the HPRC is a private technical coalition of companies across the healthcare plastics value chain that came together to enable and improve the recyclability of plastics products and plastics packaging within the healthcare industry and to increase the recycling of these materials. She said that HPRC’s mission is to ensure that all healthcare plastics are safely and effectively recycled and widely accepted as a valuable resource. 

“Early on, we understood that the barriers to recycling were all across the value chain,” Chu said. “And so, really, this is a collaborative effort of the stakeholders to come together to identify those barriers and bring solutions to market that will remove or minimize those barriers.”

In the panel discussion, Chu focused on common healthcare plastics because they can be easily collected without patient contact, which removes the fear of infectious materials being transferred to the recycler. “It's the polypropylene trays and basins,” she said. “It's the packaging trays that are used to protect the different medical instruments, saline bottles, the Tyvek and the rigid trays, and sterilization wrap, as well as IV bags.”

Chu started off by asking the panel what they thought the common challenges in recycling healthcare plastics were.

Packet mentioned three. “I think the first comes in the collection of materials out of the hospitals and nurses or healthcare professionals understanding what can and can't be collected from a recycling perspective,” he said.

The second, he said, was the perceived notion on the recycler’s part that the materials could be contaminated because they are coming from a healthcare facility.

Last, he explained, are the materials themselves. “They're often a mixed material stream,” Packet said. “So you have multiple types of polymers, as well as multiple types of forms—flexible packages along with rigid packages.”

Render agreed with Packet’s assessment, saying that some of these materials may be a little more challenging because they may incorporate laminate films and multiple materials. “But, in general, materials slated for healthcare applications are the highest quality, with the best mechanical properties, and therefore they are attractive to recyclers,” he said.

Chu then brought up the topic of advanced recycling, referencing a project the HPRC had undertaken this past year that studied whether healthcare plastics might be good feedstock for these new technologies. She asked Packet, who was one of the leaders of the study, what lessons came of it. One of the big takeaways, Packet said, was that these advanced recycling processes are more flexible because they can take a variety of different polymers. However, he said, it is more of a complementary versus competitive idea. “There are other components or packaging materials that you can get out of a hospital that are easily identified that could be collected to create a very clean stream and go into a mechanical recycling process,” he said.

Render said of mechanical recycling, “It is a proven technology. It's proven to reduce emissions and carbon footprint.” But he said that advanced recycling is more flexible for a wider variety of materials and that there are other, more niche processes within advanced recycling, like filtration and polymer decomposition. “So I think that we have to design systems that take advantage of both mechanical and advanced recycling.”

Chu next asked what challenges and opportunities were associated with reverse logistics.

Render answered: “It starts with the internal collection systems within a healthcare institution. Some of those are inconsistent or hit-or-miss—they rely on individuals who are also tasked with preparing operating rooms and actually doing the procedures,” he said. There is also the question of exactly what to collect, he noted, so there is an opportunity to clarify that and create collection systems.

He said that these materials cannot go into traditional methods of removal from an institution like a recycling compacter, so systems must be developed to densify these materials, either in bales or compressing them in carts.

Last, he said, is that the network of collection vehicles used to remove them from the institution and transport them to where the recycling will take place must be further developed.

Chu asked Packet to remind design engineers of some practices that make packaging easier to recycle and make it more attractive to recyclers. Packet acknowledged that it is sometimes difficult to change materials in a regulated market, but that there are some opportunities. “Designing a package that's made up of one polymer type would be ideal because you create a cleaner stream of materials versus having different types of polymers,” he said. Size also matters and looking at packaging that can be compressed easily is key, he noted.

When Chu asked Render what he saw in the near-term future for healthcare plastics recycling, he mentioned additives first. “There are many new additives that have come into the marketplace that are both enhancing the performance and the properties of the base resins once they're being recycled,” he said. “But also compatibilizers can make disparate resins that don't seem to work together, work together.” In fact, he said, there is a lot of discussion about building the additives into the structures in the beginning, so those items are already prepared to be recycled.

Advances in machinery are also important. “There's been advances in compression molding, where instead of having to rely on plastic being injected into a mold, the plastic is placed in charges into a mold, and then compressed down, so the reality is different and it's a much more forgiving process,” Render said. “We're going to witness the evolution of advanced recycling, everything from the purification technologies that take resins and run them through a purification process and remove colorings and odor and fillers, leaving you with an FDA-grade material, to depolymerization from one resin being depolymerized and repolymerized,” Render continued. 

Chu ended the presentation by bringing up the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on recycling this past year.

Packet said that the pandemic has probably stifled some of the momentum that was building within hospitals and potentially at recyclers, who are starting to see the healthcare plastic waste stream as valuable. “But my hope is that as this subsides, recyclers again, and maybe even the advancements in technology, can move past that,” he said. He spoke of developing systems that limit human interaction, and technologies that may not need as much sorting, which may ease some concerns about contamination. 

Render added that he thought one of the major impacts of COVID-19 has been freight costs. “Freight costs have gone up by 30, 40, 50, 60 percent,” he said, noting that when these costs go up, recyclers have limited flexibility to take materials from long distances.

However, he said there are opportunities in advanced recycling, where there are some processes that are never touched by a human, thereby eliminating the risk of COVID-19 contamination. Also, sorting technologies, which use robots to replace human beings also are evolving.

“Healthcare facilities, as well, have seen huge increases in packaging waste and probably in some ways, it’s gotten worse,” Render said. “So, if we can figure out a way to solve this problem now, when we're all under stress, it bodes well for us.”

Chu ended the presentation by inviting anyone interested in joining the HPRC to contact her at peylina.chu@anteagroup.com.

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