Case Study

Recycling Pilot for Non-Hazardous Medical Plastic Waste

The medical plastic waste recycling pilot brought together B. Braun Medical Inc. (a medical device manufacturer of smart-infusion therapy and related products), Lehigh Valley Health Network (a nationally ranked premier health system based in Allentown, Pa.) and PureCycle Technologies LLC (an advanced recycler of plastic) to evaluate and evolve the concept of health care medical plastic recycling. PureCycle Technologies focuses on the recovery and recycling of polypropylene (PP), the targeted material for this pilot. Also engaged in this pilot were Cougle’s Recycling, Inc. of Hamburg, Pa., a material recovery facility (MRF) in the Lehigh Valley region of eastern Pennsylvania, and Kurt Duska Consulting of Girard, Pa., a plastics recycling industry expert and primary author of this report.

The goal of the pilot was to identify barriers to increasing nonhazardous medical plastic recycling rates at health care providers by instituting a collection and processing program aligned with the quality requirements of an advanced plastics recycler in the region. This effort was enabled by a grant from Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services.


The objective of the medical plastic waste recycling pilot is to identify barriers to increasing non-hazardous medical plastic recycling rates at healthcare providers. This must take into consideration the impact on health care services, safety to employees, cost, and total environmental impact. According to the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC), U.S. hospitals generate about 28 million pounds of waste a day, with 20-25 percent of that being plastic products and packaging. Only a small percentage of plastics are recycled today. Plastic recycling at hospitals is less than 10%, which fills landfills, wastes natural resources, and increases carbon emissions.

Recycling Pilot for Non-Hazardous Medical Plastic Waste

Key Findings

    • Targeted Material: Plastic recyclables at hospitals are difficult to identify and often contain multiple materials. The long-term solution is for manufacturers to design for recyclability and consolidation design and provide material identification on the packaging. While the medical industry converts to a more recyclable product by following available guidance from organizations such as the Association of Plastic Recyclers and HPRC, it is necessary to work within the existing model. This requires a limited scope of products or looking at methods such as waste to energy. Hospital policies regarding handling of items such as IV bags with some fluid, irrigation bottles, used clean gowns and other critical items must be taken into consideration. Plastic recycling facilities, including both mechanical and advanced molecular recycling, are dependent on the makeup of the material stream. Eliminating plastics such as PVC (polyvinyl chloride) from the material stream, which contaminate more valuable materials such as PET, should be pursued.
    • Collection: Hospitals have minimal space, limited staff, and potentially dangerous recyclables. Concerns for controlled substances, liquids, sharps, and bloodborne pathogens will always be a concern. Densification, handling equipment and processes need to be developed for medical streams. The process must be designed to optimize the flow of material from the hospital to the recycler, which will require densification and efficient, safe
    • Logistics: Not every region in the country has recyclers with the space, technology, and desire to process medical plastics.Consolidation of recycled material is necessary to lower costs and allow shipping to recycling facilities. Third-party companies will need to be investigated to develop options including the exploration of reverse logistics. The logistics cost and impact often limit the success of a program.
    • Recycling: There have been incredible advances in technology to allow for automated sorting that lowers cost and improves the quality of the recycling process. Medical plastics are made up of multiple resin types, and most recycling operations (whether chemical or mechanical) handle limited streams. While chemical and other advanced molecular recycling processes can tolerate higher contamination levels, they still require a minimum quality level of inbound scrap for efficient production and output quality.
    • Recycled Materials: The price for virgin plastic is driven by global supply and demand and the cost for feedstocks. Recycled materials’ cost is driven by fixed costs and often is not competitive with virgin resin pricing. Increasing volumes and the efficiency of recycling will improve the cost structure, but for recycling to continue, there must be a demand for the recycled resin to drive value. Given the smaller volume of medical plastics relative to the volume of consumer plastics typically collected from curbside and industry today, targeting the most valuable plastic types will enable cost competitiveness. These plastics types include HDPE, PET and PP.
    • Training: A key to any program is training and program feedback. Hospitals, like other organizations, are seeing increased turnover with new employees. It is critical that new employees are trained on recycling programs to ensure consistent collection. Feedback from recyclers and logistics companies is required to allow continuous improvement and efficiency.