Circularity for Healthcare Plastics: The Challenges and Opportunities
Modern healthcare would not be possible without the use of plastic. Plastic has proven to be one of the few materials versatile enough to adapt to the dynamic nature of the healthcare industry, delivering benefits that include sterility, quality, durability, and most significantly, patient and healthcare worker safety. With endless design applications, plastics are found in everything from syringes, tubing, and IV bags to prosthetics, prescription bottles, and sterile packaging. Plastics are incredibly cost-effective to produce and lightweight to transport when compared to their metal and glass predecessors.
Despite the many benefits, there are environmental consequences linked to plastics use in healthcare, most importantly, the waste created. Healthcare facilities in the United States generate approximately 14,000 tons of waste per day, most of which is being disposed of in landfills or by incineration. It is estimated that between 20 and 25 percent of that volume can be attributed to plastic products and packaging. In addition, 85 percent of the hospital waste generated is non-hazardous, meaning its free from patient contact and contamination.
Today, a paradigm shift is occurring in the plastics healthcare landscape as traditional linear models of resource consumption, i.e. “make-use-dispose”, are being eschewed in favor of more circular approaches. The healthcare industry is adopting a lifecycle approach to plastic waste management, one that aims to recover, reuse, and recycle plastic products and packaging within the framework of the circular economy.
In this paper, we bring healthcare plastics into the circular economy discussion. More specifically, we identify challenges and opportunities for using post-consumer recycled (PCR) and post-industrial recycled (PIR) content in medical devices and medical device packaging. We outline pressing regulatory, technical, infrastructure, and economic barriers to promoting circularity in healthcare plastics, as well as the opportunities on the horizon that could enable greater circular solutions for medical devices and medical device packaging applications.