One of the largest challenges of recycling healthcare plastics is finding viable reuse applications for the recycled material. To better understand the potential recycling value of polymeric packaging materials from the hospital waste stream, HPRC, in collaboration with Plastics Engineering Technology students at Penn State, conducted a study that tested and analyzed the physical properties associated with various blends of recycled plastics and virgin resin.
Healthcare Film Materials Testing
The materials collected for this study included multi-layer and woven films comprised of low density polyethylene (LDPE), high density polyethylene (HDPE), polypropylene (PP), nylon, and other plastics most commonly used in medical packaging applications. These materials are representative of the recyclable plastics that are typically found within hospital areas which generate the highest volumes of packaging waste – the operating room, general floor and loading dock. However, each of these areas generates a slightly different packaging waste profile. We analyzed the amounts of these materials and their physical properties to better understand how they can be recycled in the future.
The students at Penn State analyzed the physical properties of three types of plastics found in the areas of hospitals that create the most waste; the operating room, general floor, and loading dock. They blended the three types of plastics with virgin polypropylene pellets at different ratios and evaluated them with tensile, flex, impact, and differential scanning calorimetry tests to find the optimum ratio for final applications. The results show that there are a variety of ways for healthcare plastic films to be recycled and reused.
What does this mean for healthcare plastics recycling?
From this research, we now understand that the point where the amount of recycled content significantly changes or reduces the original properties of the virgin PP is at a 50:50 blend ratio. The 60:40 blend was found to be the optimal blend to retain the bulk of the original polypropylene properties while maximizing the amount of recycled content utilized. The polypropylene material, which incorporates recycled packaging films, could be used in future commodity and household applications around 40% recycled content. The 100 percent recycled blends material could be used in low tolerance, non-critical applications where lower modulus and more ductile PE-like properties are required.
Overall, our results prove healthcare plastics have great potential as an untapped source for materials for recyclers, and HPRC will continue to dig into the practical applications and implications in future studies and work projects.