Plastics play a critical role in the delivery of safe and cost-effective healthcare services around the world. However, the healthcare industry has recognized that the environmental footprint from the widespread use of plastics, especially packaging, is significant. And while we recognize that reduction and reuse initiatives have a higher priority on the waste hierarchy and progress in these areas must continue, we wanted to explore advanced recycling technologies in an effort to discover if they could address the healthcare plastics waste stream in a meaningful way.
Advanced Recycling Research
Phase 1 – Advanced Recycling Research + Industry Interviews
In 2020, HPRC conducted interviews with sixteen advanced recycling companies from across the U.S. Through this work, we identified opportunities to expand current healthcare recycling capabilities, as well as challenges posed by the current level of maturity of the various advanced recycling technologies, including purification, decomposition, and conversion. Additionally, we carried out interviews with a number of logistics providers and healthcare facility professionals to gain further understanding into the feasibility of advanced recycling as a solution for healthcare plastics.
The phase 1 white paper includes:
Discussion of common healthcare plastics and the challenges associated with recycling them.
An overview of the advanced recycling industry, current technologies, and environmental impacts.
Insights from advanced recyclers, healthcare organizations and logistics providers.
Phase 2 – Advanced Recycling Pilot Project
Building on insights from the 2020 advanced recycling work and the 2019 Flexibles Recyclability Assessment Pilot project, HPRC embarked on a second phase of advanced recycling work to better understand the suitability of a mixed stream of healthcare plastics as a feedstock for different advanced recycling technologies. Through this project, advanced recyclers that participated in HPRC’s earlier research conducted a hands-on assessment of clean healthcare plastic packaging to determine compatibility with their technologies. The project incorporated a variety of advanced recycling technologies and demonstrates the complementary nature of the different technologies, as well as the opportunities for material circularity within the healthcare industry and across related sectors such as the biopharma industry.
With insights for hospitals, medical product manufacturers, and advanced recyclers, our findings represent a significant step forward in understanding opportunities and challenges associated with recycling plastic materials commonly found in real-world healthcare settings. From this work, HPRC concludes that healthcare plastics are a viable and valuable feedstock for a variety of advanced recycling technologies. Because of advanced recycling’s ability to handle material streams that are incompatible or difficult to handle with mechanical recycling, HPRC continues to view advanced recycling as a complementary solution to mechanical recycling.
The phase 2 white paper includes:
An overview of the global healthcare plastics market and key drivers.
Discussion of the growing opportunity for advanced recycling applications.
Results from mock waste stream evaluations, including feedback on recycling success, compatibility with specific recycling technologies, negative effects of specific materials, and other observations.
Summary of key takeaways by hospital, medical device manufacturer and advanced recycler stakeholders.
Phase 3 – Advanced Recycling Scale Up Pilot with Hospitals
During 2022, HPRC will build upon the previous two phases of advanced recycling work to design and conduct a pilot study to collect a mixed stream of flexible healthcare plastics from select hospitals and process them using different advanced recycling technologies. By processing commercial scale samples that are collected “in real life” at hospitals, we seek to understand how a typical mix of healthcare packaging materials is processed and gather insights on which materials are more or less favorable for different recycling technologies (purification, decomposition, and conversion).
The feasibility of phase 3 work depends on the ability to collect adequate amounts of plastic waste from hospitals, given COVID-19 impacts.