In July of 2017, China announced that they are no longer accepting imports of 24 categories of consumer waste, including commonly recycled post-consumer plastics and paper products, due to environmental and health concerns posed by the waste’s contamination. They plan expand this ban to post-industrial materials in 2019. Almost every country exported a portion of their recyclables to China – now there are shock waves being felt around the world as waste piles up and has nowhere to go. Recycled materials prices are staying low, in many cases eroding the cost advantage of making products with recycled content, and recyclers in China can no longer secure adequate supply to operate and are having to consider closing their doors. All of these factors leave state and local governments and industries wondering about the future of recycling.
We at the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC) are focused on inspiring and enabling plastics recycling solutions in healthcare and, while there are several challenges coming to the surface from China’s refusal of plastic waste, we see bright spots and opportunities for innovation in healthcare plastics recycling. In collaboration with our strategic partner PLASTICS, let’s look at what this ban really means for healthcare plastics.
The Impacts of the China Plastics Ban on Healthcare Plastics Recycling
Despite the challenges, there are several benefits of recycling that outweigh the negative impacts of the China plastics ban—recycling is still a big priority for customers and can bring positive brand recognition, cost savings for certain resins, and the added benefit of incentives from Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP). Not to mention that healthcare plastics are still extremely suitable for recycling due to their high quality, stemming from strict production regulations.
Kim Holmes, VP of Sustainability at PLASTICS, provides context on the plastics industry saying, “Due to the reduced supply of recycled content, prime resin pricing is expected to stay low, which in some cases means it is cheaper to make virgin plastic goods rather than recycled goods. With nowhere to export scrap, plastics gathered for recycling might end up in landfills due to a lack of recycling facilities near their collection site. There are talks of scrap being sent to India, Indonesia, and other countries, but none of them have near the recycling capability that China does. In addition, healthcare plastics still carry the ‘ick’ stigma of potentially having infectious materials in the recyclables stream.”
New Investments in Recycling Capabilities
Now that recyclables can’t be sent to China for processing, companies and governments are turning inward and looking to invest in local recycling infrastructure.
For example, GDB International plans to make “very, very sizable investments to set up factories in New Jersey and Ohio to make pellets from recycled plastics that it previously exported to China.” Before the ban, GDB had been exporting 40% of their 16.5 million pounds of plastics they bought each month. Now, they are leading the way for manufacturers and others who have a stake in recycled materials to make investments in new facilities and machinery to recycle on U.S. soil. There are also reports of Chinese recyclers moving to the United States and opening their own facilities in South Carolina, Indiana, and Alabama. Growing domestic recycling capabilities is great for creating new jobs, keeping waste out of landfills, and expanding our long-term recycling sustainability.
Facilities aren’t the only thing recyclers are investing in. New technologies show huge promise for improving healthcare plastics recycling processes.
Chemical recycling is picking up steam as companies like Resinate Materials Group are growing their capabilities in recycling medical packaging (PETG and PET). HPRC and the Plastics Industry Association partnered with Resinate to test the recovery of pre-patient plastics in Chicago area hospitals. We found that while PETG and PET can act as contaminants within mechanical recycling streams, in chemical recycling these polyester-based resins can be processed on their own or together without contamination. Using chemical recycling incentivizes collection of these previously un-collected, high value plastics.
Solvent recycling is another promising frontier that recyclers are exploring. Solvent recycling purifies polypropylene packaging–a common plastic used in food packaging, plastic wraps, and hospital packaging—into a usable resin that is just as high quality as virgin plastic. One company working in this exciting new field is PureCycle Technologies, who has licensed solvent recycling technology from Proctor & Gamble. Investing in new technologies like solvent recycling opens the doors for including more types of plastic hospital waste in recycling collection and proves that high-quality items can be made out of these materials.
HPRC has been working with researchers at the Plastics Engineering Department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell to determine viable strategies for recycling multimaterial flexible plastic packaging that is currently being discarded by hospitals. Almost 60% of plastic waste generated by healthcare facilities is flexible material, and these flexible materials are commonly not recycled because they are made up of several different types of plastics, making them more difficult or impossible to turn into something new. Our research is focused on using compatibilizers, chemicals that help incompatible resins to chemically bond, which have the potential to increase the value of flexible plastics in recycling.
The Future of Recycling
Despite all the negative impacts of the China plastics ban, healthcare plastics are still high-value and important to collect, and there are several positive investments happening all around the world to increase recycling capabilities. There are others who share our positive outlook on recycling investments. Adrian Tylim (writing for Environmental Leader) mentioned the possibilities for U.S. recycling growth, saying “As challenging as this may be, the Chinese ban on trash should be seen as an opportunity.”
Post-ban, there is more pressure for manufacturers to do better, for hospitals to gather waste appropriately, and for recyclers to grow their businesses in the U.S. We have also seen the benefits of hospitals, recyclers, and recycled goods manufacturers working together to solve plastics recycling challenges, as featured in the innovative Dartmouth-Hitchcock recycling program.
Peylina Chu, HPRC Executive Director says, “The China ban just may be the disruption that the U.S. recycling industry needs for radical improvement. Although painful in the short term, I truly believe that this disruption provides opportunities for new and better business and will be better for everyone and the environment in the long term.”
Recommendations for You
In closing, we have a few recommendations for hospitals:
Don’t stop collecting plastics for recycling. Even if your materials have to be landfilled temporarily, keep collecting to show recyclers how much material is coming from your facility, to keep your
collection programs and infrastructure in place, and to promote the future of healthcare plastics recycling.
Continue asking your waste hauler if there is an opportunity to recycle the healthcare plastics in your facility. Recycling companies continue to refine their business strategies in response to the bans, so opportunities may arise, especially as you demonstrate continued commitment to recycling quality materials in usable quantities.
Continue networking with other hospitals about their recycling successes. The recycling industry is very fluid and new solutions may be developing more rapidly now.