Design Guidance

This guidance aims to influence the design of plastic healthcare products and packaging for improved recyclability without deteriorating product integrity or performance. This work provides recommendations for preferred materials for mechanical recycling processes and briefly describes potential future opportunities for the use of advanced recycling technologies. Recently updated in 2023, this version considers current trends, technology advancements, and the expanded membership of the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council.

Design Guidance for Healthcare Plastics Recycling

Design for Circularity

The focal point of this guidance is recyclability. However, in alignment with the waste hierarchy, sustainable product and packaging design should first prioritize reduction and reuse. Reduction may entail the use of fewer materials, the use of more environmentally preferred materials, or avoidance of the product or packaging altogether. Product or packaging reuse may reduce waste and create resource efficiency by allowing for a product or packaging to be used many times before reaching the end of its useful life. Prioritization in accordance with the waste hierarchy supports the principles of a circular economy, which aim to eliminate waste and keep materials in use as long as possible.

Additional Considerations

Beyond recyclability claims and available recycling technologies, product development and design teams should also consider the needs of hospital operations. Healthcare facility storage space, logistics, and personnel may impact the feasibility of material separation for recycling or reuse. Consideration of the product’s overall environmental impact, which can be determined using life cycle assessment (LCA), is also recommended.

We hope that this guidance will raise awareness of good design practices to improve recyclability as well as educate and inform design teams of practices to avoid that may hinder plastics recyclability. These guidelines may also benefit hospital staff, waste haulers, and recyclers interested in the effective recycling of healthcare plastics.

Desirable Design Practices for Healthcare Plastics

    • Designing with mono-material whenever possible.

    • Using polyolefin seals or gaskets on polypropylene bottles.

    • Combining chemically compatible or jointly processable plastics, if multiple materials are required.

    • Using materials that are easily separated during automated recycling processes, if multiple materials are required.

    • Using breathable plastics as an alternative to paper.

    • Minimizing paper labels and components.

    • Using water-based adhesives.

    • Allowing for bottles and bags to be fully drained with ease before disposal

    • Providing information on contents that allows for easy identification of residual liquids.

    • Minimizing pigments.

Less Desirable Design Practices for Healthcare Plastics

    • Using a rubber seal on a polypropylene bottle.

    • Combining incompatible bioplastics and petroleum-based plastics into one product.

    • Welding, gluing or molding two components of unlike plastics.

    • Combining plastic film with paper in packaging.

    • Using metalized plastics, metals screws, grommets in plastic.

    • Using lead.

    • Using PVC.

Why Good Design Benefits Recycling

Recycling plastic waste not only reduces the amount of waste sent to landfill or incineration, but also reduces environmental impacts from producing virgin plastics. In most cases this results in a net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, as the energy required for recycling is less than the energy required to make new, virgin plastic.

In a literature review conducted by HPRC, Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) studies comparing recycling to other disposal methods concluded that recycling had a lower environmental impact than landfill or incineration with energy recovery, particularly due to the benefits of avoiding virgin plastic production.

Making Recycling Easier

Overall, products designed to limit the use of multiple plastics without sacrificing functionality could significantly increase their potential recyclability. Additionally, a standardized labeling system for all recyclable healthcare plastics products could further optimize yields at the hospital and increase the effectiveness of manual sorting capabilities of the workers handling and sorting this material.

Reaping Financial Benefits

Through the right methodology and sorting systems, designing for recycling can become an important part of the solution to reducing waste, and provide a valuable material stream for recyclers.

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