Where There's a Market, There's a Way

Where There's a Market, There's a Way

The winners of the 2014 Recycling Innovators Forum demonstrate the power of economics when it comes to reshaping materials recovery. 

The HPRC, which was launched in 2010 by some of the largest brands in health care product and packaging manufacturing, has leveraged its $20,000 to try to begin establishing a plastics diversion pilot program in Chicago, one of America’s busiest health care hubs.

The mission of HPRC is to streamline collection and recycling of the significant tonnages of clean plastics that are created everyday in hospital settings as clinicians unwrap and prepare instruments used to assess patients. HPRC cites figures from an organization called Practice GreenHealth that suggest more than 1 million tons of noninfectious plastic packaging go unrecovered from clinical settings every year. “This is material that is not hazardous waste,” stressed Tod Christenson, director of HPRC. “These are high-quality plastic resources recovered before the stage of patient exposure and contact.”

HPRC has stepped in to try to direct more of that material to reclaimers. In 2012 the council collaborated in a pilot program with Stanford Hospitals & Clinics in Palo Alto, California, undertaking waste characterization studies and other research that helped the group determine what specific materials and challenges exist in hospital settings. The study found 70 tons of health care plastics can be recovered annually from Stanford, much of it plastic film, rigid plastics and Blue Wrap, a dense, sterile hospital staple made from polypropylene.

Now, HPRC is turning its focus on the Windy City, where it hopes to bring together between five and seven hospitals with a plastics recycling firm. If all goes as planned, those entities will work together to create a system of plastics recovery within one specific community.

Christenson said if the Chicago system can show there is money to be made through clinical plastics recycling, the model would likely spark action in other pockets of the nation. “In essence, we’re trying to create the pull,” he said. “You can push and push, but if we can show an economic opportunity, that can excite the entrepreneurs out thereto go after this high-quality resource.”

Christenson noted the Chicago pilot is not a done deal – an RFP is still out to the recycling community and discussions are ongoing with hospitals. But desire for movement on the recycling issue seems to be in place within health care organizations themselves. Christenson said hospital administrators are hungry to find ways to cut waste bills, and the clinicians that actually handle the targeted packaging daily are tired of tossing it in the trash.

“In all our talks with hospitals so far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that one of things that keeps coming up is: ‘We’re getting a lot of pressure from employees to do something about this,’” Christenson said. “This idea of employee satisfaction is a real pressure point for these folks. They see recycling as a chance to increase employee satisfaction and engagement while reducing their disposal costs.”

HPRC has also moved forward by developing a partnership with the Plastics Industry Association for the Chicago project so that the hospital plastics effort keeps the needs of plastics processors and buyers in mind. The initiative, in fact, has already caught the eye of one manufacturer in the Upper Midwest, according to Christenson. That company has tested bales of material similar to that which would come out of the Chicago project, and company representatives determined it is suitable for use as recycled content.

“They’re excited because all of a sudden they have a potential new feedstock,” said Christenson. “If we can create that kind of demand, we’re going to have people knocking on every hospital door in the country.”

2014 Recycling Innovators Forum Article