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Investigating Wasted Opportunities in Medical Plastics Recycling

Article-Investigating Wasted Opportunities in Medical Plastics Recycling

Medical plastic waste
As it prepares a report on the recently completed study on mechanical recycling of flexible medical packaging, the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council launches a new study on chemical recycling.

U.S healthcare facilities generate approximately 14,000 tons of waste per day, and it’s estimated that as much as one-quarter of that waste is composed of plastic packaging and products. And here’s the kicker: 85% of that hospital waste has not come in contact with a patient and is, in that respect, non-hazardous. Those statistics were compiled by the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC), an organization dedicated to improving the recyclability of plastic products and packaging within the healthcare space. Nick Packet, a packaging engineer at DuPont, which is a member of the HPRC, participated in a panel discussion on sustainability at last week’s Medical Design & Manufacturing (MD&M) West event in Anaheim, CA. At that time, he provided an update on HPRC’s activities.

Accompanying Nick Packet (second from left) in a panel discussion on sustainability in the medical space at MD&M West 2020 were (left to right) Rob Chase of NewGen Surgical, Vipul Davé from Johnson & Johnson and Frank Pokrop from Quidel Corp.

Founded in 2010, the HPRC describes itself as a “private, technical consortium of industry peers across the healthcare, recycling, and waste management industries.” Its members include a who’s who of the medical device industry: BD, Baxter, Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic and more. Several leading healthcare organizations, including the Cleveland Clinic, Kaiser Permanente and Ascension Health, sit on its advisory board. Its mission is simple: To collaborate across the value chain to implement cost-effective, viable ways of recycling these high-value materials, as Packet put it at the conference.

The St. Paul, MN–based HPRC has just completed a flexible packaging recycling study and is in the process of preparing its report, Packet told conference attendees, but he did share some observations prior to its publication.

“We collected two streams of material from three hospitals,” explained Packet. “One stream had just flexible packaging—pouches, header bags, Tyvek, lids and so forth—and the other was a combination of flexible plastic packaging and blue polypropylene wrap.” The group used sophisticated Erema recycling equipment to process the waste and shipped it to the University of Massachusetts Lowell for further processing and assessment. Compatibilizers were added at various ratios to improve the blend. “At the end of the day, the single-material stream performed a lot like low-density polyethylene and the stream with the co-mingled blue wrap performed more like polypropylene,” said Packet.

“We got to a pretty good end product,” he added, “and we proved that the effort was feasible. The question is, what application can this go into? That is what we are exploring now,” said Packet.

In profiling the HPRC’s accomplishments, Packet reminded attendees that one of the early achievements of the organization was a document detailing best practices for designing recyclable medical products and packaging. We have produced an infographic, which can be viewed here, listing 10 desirable design practices for healthcare plastics. A more thorough explanation of these practices, including a downloadable PDF, is available on the HPRC website.

The initiative was not without its challenges, acknowledged Packet. Changing behaviors at a hospital is fraught with difficulties, he noted. The sorting process can be labor-intensive, and the small scale of the project—just three hospitals—left logistical questions unanswered. “It’s not really viable at a larger scale to FedEx plastic waste to a collection site,” he commented wryly. Perhaps, he suggested, trucks delivering supplies could do double duty and pick up and transport waste, thus reducing the carbon footprint?

Having explored the mechanical recycling of flexible packaging waste, the HPRC has just begun a new project looking into chemical recycling. Three working groups have been formed to investigate the unresolved issue of moving the material viably from point A to point B, identifying chemical recycling technologies, and making the business case.

Chemical recycling is not new, but it has gained currency of late as the technology has evolved and the willingness to pay a premium for sustainable practices has grown. In its simplest form, chemical recycling breaks down the molecular bonds of plastic materials into their original monomer constituents, which are then “up-cycled” into new polymers. HPRC member Eastman Chemical is just one major player that has developed a form of chemical recycling, which it calls methanolysis or carbon renewal technology. A special report on this and other real-world solutions to the plastic waste challenge published by PlasticsToday is available here as a free download.

As for the HPRC’s initiatives, including the forthcoming report on its study of mechanical recycling of flexible medical packaging waste, stay tuned. PlasticsToday will continue to cover developments within this notable organization as they are made public.

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