Modern healthcare would not be possible without the use of plastic. It has proved to be one of the few versatile materials that has been able to adapt along with the dynamic nature of the healthcare industry, delivering benefits that include sterility, quality, durability, and most significantly, patient and healthcare worker safety. However, despite the many benefits, there are also unintended environmental consequences with single-use plastics and packaging in healthcare, namely the waste that they create. In 2020, over 32 billion pounds of healthcare plastics were produced globally and is expected to grow to 48 billion pounds by 2025. Most of which is being disposed of in landfills or by incineration and much of this material is uncontaminated and recyclable.
In addition, recent research by the World Health Organization (WHO) states that tens of thousands of tonnes of additional medical waste have been generated by the Covid-19 response, with much of it containing single-use plastic. The soaring production of personal protection equipment (PPE), as well as testing kits and vaccine packaging and containers, has put additional strain on healthcare waste management systems. So, what is the solution?
Collaboration is Key
This ongoing plastic waste challenge was the catalyst for the formation of the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC) just over a decade ago. Sustainability-minded leaders from across medical device manufacturing, healthcare and recycling industries understood early on that tackling this challenge would require expertise and commitment from the entire healthcare plastic value chain. Founded in 2010, HPRC engages in pioneering projects designed to help boost plastics recycling efforts in clinical settings of hospitals. More specifically, HPRC explores ways to enhance the economics, efficiency, and ultimately the quality and quantity of healthcare plastics collected for recycling.
We recognize that there is not one single magic bullet that will solve the problem of clean, recyclable healthcare plastics ending up in landfills. There are product design features that inhibit recyclability, hospital staff lack training on what is not recyclable, there is limited space and infrastructure within hospitals to aggregate recyclable materials and recycler demand and availability to collect these materials vary greatly by geography. All of these challenges combined, hinder the ability to recycle.
Removing Barriers to Recycling One Project at a Time
Every year, HPRC members develop a formal work plan that outlines well-defined projects intended to remove barriers to recycling healthcare plastics. Based on the specific project scope, project work teams are formed by pulling in the most appropriate resources from HPRC member companies. Resources from across material science, research and development, product/package engineering, sustainability, nursing, facility management, recycling and logistics disciplines are all invited to the table to share their experience and deep technical knowledge in order to build solutions to the most common recycling challenges facing healthcare plastics.
HPRC is unique in its focus on the identification of plastics recycling barriers and solution development along the entire value chain. Meaning, we seek to affect plastics recycling from healthcare product design and manufacturing through product use, disposal and recycle. Through this collaborative approach, we bring the right stakeholders to the table to most effectively develop solutions to an ever-growing and complex waste management issue.
Here is a look at some of HPRC’s most recent work.
While hospitals have been champions of recycling for decades, efforts have largely focused on food service and administrative areas and not on patient care settings where the majority of health care plastic materials are generated. With sustainability becoming an increasing priority, healthcare organizations are determined to do more to address this plastic waste challenge. In response, HPRC has developed a solution to help hospitals successfully integrate recycling practices into patient care settings, and better understand the economic, regulatory, resourcing, and infrastructure nuances that come with it. Through a step-by-step approach, this guide – called Hospicycle -- is intended to help hospitals navigate the process of activating a plastics recycling program from initial planning and business decisions through program implementation and improvement considerations.
A product's end of life is becoming an increasingly important aspect of its design. With extended producer responsibility programs moving from voluntary to mandatory in many parts of the world, designing products with recycling in mind is critical to recycling success. One of the very first projects that HPRC completed was developing a set of design guidelines that outline useful design considerations for improving the recyclability of disposable plastic products and packaging. Developed by product and packaging engineers, this tool identifies and articulates design features that inhibit post-use recycling potential and makes design recommendations that could enhance product recyclability. HPRC is currently making updates to these Design Guidelines to incorporate insights from recent work as well as align with other external design standards.
Advanced Recycling Research
Over the past couple of years, HPRC has been researching, evaluating and educating itself on advanced recycling technologies and their suitability for healthcare plastics. Advanced recycling -- also referred to as molecular or chemical recycling -- uses solvents, heat, enzymes, and even sound waves to purify or break down plastic waste for recycling. And while advanced recycling technologies are still nascent and not yet widely available, they appear to offer promising solutions for difficult-to-recycle healthcare plastics -- such as multilaminate packaging materials -- that can’t be processed using traditional mechanical recycling processes.
Over the course of 2021, HPRC embarked on a second phase of advanced recycling work and partnered with advanced recyclers to conduct a pilot project to better understand the suitability of a mixed stream of healthcare plastics as a feedstock for different advanced recycling technologies. The goal of this work was to uncover new recycling opportunities that will reduce landfill waste, carbon emissions associated with creating virgin plastic, and reliance on fossil fuels — ultimately enabling greater material circularity.
Read more about other HPRC resources and featured projects at www.hprc.org.
By identifying barriers to recycling at different points along the value chain, HPRC works with the appropriate stakeholder to remove or minimize the barrier, leverage market opportunities and reduce environmental impact.
Be Part of the Solution
Each HPRC member company is a leader in their respective industry with a demonstrated expertise, commitment, and passion for shaping the future of plastics recycling and reducing the environmental footprint of not only their own operations but also the operations of their customers.
If you fit within the healthcare plastic value chain and are looking to apply your technical knowledge and experience to advance sustainability in healthcare, we’ve saved you a seat at the table.
HPRC is facilitated by Antea Group USA.