The Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC), in conjunction with the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS), was thrilled to host a Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference workshop aimed at helping recyclers learn more about the opportunity presented by healthcare plastics. The pre-conference event was held Wednesday, October 11, and after a welcome from Peylina Chu, Director of HPRC, we dove right in to see at what’s happening currently with a few of the potential feedstocks coming out of hospitals and consider what possible future disruptions might lie ahead. Based on HPRC estimates there are up to two billion pounds of recoverable plastic waste material generated by the healthcare industry annually and current recycling rates for plastic packaging used in the healthcare industry are significantly below the national average of 14 percent.
Assessing the Situation with Rigids
First up, a panel of experts tackled the present and future possibilities of recycling rigid plastics, a major potential feedstock from clinical settings, with moderator Bob Render from HPRC member Ravago Recycling Group leading the discussion. Glen Goodsell, Recycling Coordinator for Mayo Clinic offered up a hospital perspective, walking the group through the process Mayo uses to collect, sort, and process a broad range of recyclable materials including rigid plastics. While not an easy task, with the right resources and ingenuity, it is possible—Mayo is currently sorting 13 separate categories of plastics and serves as a model for how a clean stream of materials can be generated at scale in a healthcare setting.
Mandie Latture, Senior Account Manager at post-industrial recycler ACI Plastics, then offered a view into ACI’s automated process for separating the six different types of material found in insulin syringes (including four different types of rigid plastic). This process includes grinding up whole syringes, running the material through a magnet to separate stainless steel, separating packaging through aeration, processing the grind through density separation (float/sink) for PP, PE, and HIPS recovery. With its established processes, five plants in the US, and a global presence, ACI is eager to consider additional materials sourced from the healthcare industry.
Scott Boito, Product Stewardship Manager for HPRC member Eastman Chemical, spoke from the manufacturer’s viewpoint, offering insights into the struggle to balance PETG’s usefulness in meeting medical device and food contact packaging requirements with the fact that it contaminates regular PET streams during recycling. While use of PETG is growing – especially in healthcare applications – volumes are still limited relative to major plastics, therefore Eastman is looking for help from the recycling community to identify recovery and reuse methodologies. To this end, Eastman is offering technical resources to help with PETG identification and separation, and has ideas for potential end-use markets for the recovered material.
A Circular Take on Sterilization Wrap
The next panel, moderated by Chris Rogers from Antea Group (facilitators of HPRC) focused on a second healthcare plastic feedstock—sterilization wrap—and the circular solution being established to recover and ultimately reuse the plastic back in hospitals. Dan Constant, President of Sustainable Solutions, outlined the closed-loop model he is helping over 500 hospitals pursue for diversion of sterilization wrap from landfill: after use and collection, it can be picked up by an approved transporter (typically a document destruction company or other service provider already working at the hospital); sorted, baled, and sold to a recycler; then pelletized and made into new products which may be purchased by the hospital such as bedpans, waste bins, totes, and wash basins. However, these loops need to be formed at a regional level to be cost effective. This requires alignment of service providers and may involve some thinking outside the box…something Sustainable Solutions has succeeded in doing in multiple markets in the US.
Panelist Katie Wickman, Sustainability Manager for HPRC adviser hospital Advocate Healthcare, is a participant in one such loop, along with Garrett Anderson, Operations Manager for Citadel Information Management, who serves as Advocate’s sterilization wrap collector and transporter. The relationship is mutually beneficial, allowing Advocate to offload their collected wrap in a timely and regular fashion to Citadel, who is already regularly servicing the hospital for document pickup and destruction. Citadel, in turn, is able to strengthen the relationship with their client and sell the blue wrap to a ready buyer—in this case, New Rivers Polymers. The relationships and the process make business sense for everyone involved, which makes this a promising model—the challenge lies in finding the right partners and making the logistics work.
Considering What the Future Holds
Next up, attendees were treated to an introduction to the work PureCycle Technologies is doing around chemical polypropylene recycling, offering a sneak peek at the solution they are currently bringing to market. This approach represents the new and innovative side of the recycling industry, pioneering an approach to recycling PP that is capable of generating recycled PP with virgin-like properties, thereby, opening up many new possibilities for the sale and reuse of the recycled material. A unique aspect of this technology is its ability to handle feedstocks which are multi-colored and heavily contaminated. The company plans to open a commercial-scale production facility in southern Ohio in late 2020 which is slated to produce 80 million pounds per year from an input of 100 million pounds. Ultimately, the company is planning multiple such plants around the country. The company is currently evaluating feedstock sources and is very interested in sourcing materials from the healthcare industry.
Finally, all the panelists were kind enough to join interactive audience discussion groups where recyclers could engage with representatives from hospitals and healthcare material and equipment manufacturers to learn about the different types of recyclable heathcare plastics, how to work with hospitals, and how to handle logistics considerations. It was a great opportunity to both inspire one another and provide a reality check, and all attendees walked away with a fuller understanding of both the complexities and some solutions for recycling healthcare plastics.
HPRC was thrilled to get to connect with so many of you in the recycling industry—thanks to all those who participated, presented, and attended!