Recycling medical plastics faces economic hurdles, not to mention the ‘ick’ factor

Medical gloveFew of the plastics used in hospitals and healthcare applications are recycled—less than 14% in 2013, according to BCC Research, a market intelligence company based in Wellesley, MA. It’s unlikely that percentage has shifted appreciably since then. That’s not just a blot on the environment, it’s an untapped business opportunity for hospitals and recyclers alike, according to an article published this week in Recycling Today, “Healthcare plastics: Untapped feedstock, untapped business opportunity.” In fact, Robert Render of the Ravago Recycling Group told consultant and article author Alison Bryant, “Healthcare plastics are the last large, untapped material stream with great potential for recyclers, compounders and OEMs.”

There are several compelling reasons for hospitals and recyclers to team up. For one thing, disposing of these materials, which may end up tossed into a landfill or incinerated, represents a significant cost for hospitals. That’s a lose-lose. As Bryant notes in her article, medical-grade plastics, by definition, are high-quality materials with little variance in properties such as melt flow, viscosity and tensile strength. “These plastics are generated continuously with very little change in composition over time, meaning they are a reliable, high-quality stream coming from willing and eager providers,” she writes.

That’s not to say that recycling medical plastics doesn't have its challenges. Earlier this year, I wrote about a multi-hospital plastics recycling project conducted in the Chicago area by the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS; Washington, DC) and the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC; St. Paul, MN). The study concluded, among other things, that properly sorting recyclables in an intense hospital environment was fraught with difficulties and that the economic value was not sufficient in the current climate. 

Another challenge, dubbed one of the myths surrounding the recycling of medical materials by Bryant in her article, is the “ick” factor.

“A common misconception about healthcare plastics,” she writes, “is that all of it is inherently dangerous as a result of contact with biohazardous materials, medications and other unsafe materials.” She rightly notes that “most healthcare plastics are disposed of before the patient even enters the room.” That would account for packaging primarily; single-use devices are another matter, of course. Still, changing public perception is a heavy lift. It reminds me of the utilities trying to convince customers that the time has come for direct potable reuse technology—the polite term for converting sewage into drinking water. See, you winced, didn’t you? That’s why those efforts have been mostly unsuccessful, even in California when it was experiencing historic drought conditions.

The other myths that Bryant attempts to debunk are that hospitals don’t generate materials in sufficient quantities to make recycling economically viable—that was actually one of the conclusions of the PLASTICS-HPRC study referenced above—and that there is no end market.

I think economics, and to some extent the ick factor, will prevail for now. As long as the price of virgin materials stays relatively low, there won’t be a great deal of incentive to wrestle with the logistics of using recycled resins. Beyond the balance sheet, there are other considerations, first and foremost the environmental impact. The willingness of industry and the general population to take those factors into account in a meaningful manner could shape a different outcome.

Bryant makes a good case for that. You can read it here.

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