June 19, 2024

Health Minds

Nourishing Minds, Elevating Health

The role of sustainability in medical plastics

5 min read

In this Q&A, Eastman’s Katherine Hofmann explores the vital connection between sustainability and healthcare. She highlights the importance of medical plastics in achieving sustainability goals, discussing challenges, regulations, and emerging solutions. Her insights offer a comprehensive overview of ongoing efforts to advance sustainability in healthcare, with a focus on medical packaging and patient safety. 

Why does sustainability matter in the context of healthcare? 

The use of single-use plastics revolutionised healthcare, enabling better sterility and reducing potential infection or the spread of infection. However, the negative impact of climate change and environmental waste cannot be ignored. These sustainability issues are not only adversely affecting the environment but also place an additional burden on the healthcare system. Despite the healthcare industry’s commitment to “do no harm”, it inadvertently contributes toward climate change and waste through the use of single-use plastics in medical packaging. While these plastics are essential for patient protection and optimal outcomes, it is crucial to recognise that environmental health is directly linked to human health. Therefore, it is imperative to develop solutions that protect both patients and the broader community. 

What makes the examination of medical plastics crucial in the pursuit of sustainability? 

Companies in the medical plastics industry are setting targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and collaborating on recycling programs led by organisations like the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC). These efforts are crucial in preventing medical plastics from being disposed of in landfills or incinerated, as they account for approximately 25% of waste from healthcare facilities and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Surprisingly, a study by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that over 85% of plastic waste from healthcare facilities is uncontaminated and suitable for recycling, challenging previous perceptions. While single-use plastics in primary medical packaging are important for sterility and safety, there is a growing need to minimise their environmental impact.  

What potential solutions do you see emerging to make medical plastics more sustainable? 

While medical device reprocessing programs have been successful, it is anticipated that medical packaging plastics will continue to be used as single-use due to their cost-effectiveness and ease of sterilisation. To improve sustainability, efforts should be directed towards minimising environmental impact through manufacturing, sterilisation, and end-of-use practices. There are several solutions available, including hospitals reassessing the necessity of certain procedures and the adoption of advanced technologies like molecular recycling. This approach reduces greenhouse gas emissions and waste by converting materials into base molecules for the production of new plastics. It not only reduces manufacturing footprints but also promotes circularity by utilising waste as feedstock. Pilot studies conducted by HPRC have demonstrated that medical plastic waste can be utilised effectively across various technologies. Technologies like this encourage us to know that circularity is possible in the industry. 

Can you provide insights into the ongoing efforts and projects in the industry that contribute to advancing sustainability in medical plastics? 

Several significant initiatives are underway. The National Academy of Medicine has introduced a Sustainable Journey Map to assist healthcare facilities in reducing carbon emissions, including those associated with medical plastics. The Joint Commission has launched a voluntary certification program to recognise and promote decarbonisation efforts within healthcare facilities. The HPRC is actively engaged in various projects, such as harmonising sustainable procurement requirements, evaluating sortation technologies for mixed plastics waste, and collaborating with the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and Methodist Hospitals on a program called .e3TX to establish a scalable and economically viable hospital plastics recycling program. Kilmer Innovations in Packaging Sustainable End of Life (KiiP SEOL) is developing technical documentation to facilitate the regulatory acceptance of molecular recycling for medical packaging. Both HPRC and KiiP SEOL have created educational materials for stakeholders in the value chain, including HospiCycle, a plastics recycling blueprint for hospitals, and information on molecular recycling to enhance understanding of its utility for medical plastics. 

What challenges, whether logistical, regulatory, or financial, is the medical plastics industry currently grappling with in the pursuit of sustainability? 

Hospitals are under financial and resource pressure that hinder their ability to implement sustainability programs, including recycling initiatives. Limited financial resources and personnel make it challenging for hospitals to allocate additional funds and manpower towards sustainability efforts. Space constraints pose another obstacle, as most hospitals were not designed with plastics recycling in mind. The collection and pick-up of plastics require dedicated space, which may be lacking in many hospitals. This often necessitates the adoption of single-stream collection methods. Right now, municipal waste services do not typically accept hospital plastics, which adds to the logistical complexities that require the full value chain and come new actors to help. 

At present, medical plastics are generally exempt from regulations targeting single-use plastics due to their critical role in safeguarding public health. However, the recent Packaging and Plastics Waste Regulation in Europe includes recyclability requirements for medical packaging by 2035. Eastman is engaged in collaborative efforts across the industry to enable the recycling of PETG. By enabling recycling of PETG, the need for creation of new packaging can be reduced. 

How can companies explore end-of-use strategies for medical plastics, and what questions should they be asking to ensure both sustainability and financial viability? 

HPRC recently published guiding principles related to molecular recycling, which align closely with the principles adopted by Eastman. These principles serve as an excellent starting point for engaging with end-of-use providers initiating discussions about the environmental and community impacts of their process, regardless of whether molecular recycling is involved. Key considerations include adherence to waste hierarchy, assessment of greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts, identifying where the material will be processed, and determining potential applications it would go into. It is important to always ask about associated costs, as alternative solutions to landfilling and incineration often come with additional expenses. Determining how these costs will be distributed across the full value chain is important for developing a viable and sustainable strategy.      

How can we guarantee that chemically recycled materials are not contaminated, and what criteria should companies consider in determining the safety of medical products made from these materials? 

It is crucial to understand that the molecular recycling process effectively removes contaminants. This can be assessed through different analytical testing methods, such as infrared spectroscopy or nuclear magnetic resonance. Both techniques show the molecular make-up of a given material, allowing one to see any contaminants or differences between two products. Additional testing can be conducted to assess factors like biocompatibility, processing and mechanical properties including heat resistance, stiffness, and material flow. It is important to note that these properties will remain consistent as long as the molecular make-up remains the same. 

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