If you’ve ever spent time in a hospital, you probably noticed the massive amounts of materials that were being tossed into trash bins. Sterilization wrap, gowns, irrigation bottles, IV bags, basins, pitchers, trays, rigid and flexible packaging materials are all used once and then thrown away.
Recent studies report that hospitals generate 33.8 pounds of waste per day, per staffed bed. Multiply this amount of waste across world hospital bed density and we are talking staggering waste in the ballpark of 100 million tons per year.
Much of this waste is plastic, and it’s ending up in landfills or incinerators despite the fact that up to 85 percent of it is non-hazardous, meaning free from patient contact and infectious contamination.
The New Plastics Economy
Clearly, the potential for plastics recycling in hospitals is a significant opportunity to reduce environmental impacts. In particular, hospital plastics show great potential to be part of the Circular Economy (CE) movement, in which waste and pollution have been eliminated and products, components, and materials are kept at their highest and most effective use. Plastics in particular, have unique opportunities and challenges in what the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has dubbed the New Plastics Economy.
However, it’s not quite as simple as it sounds. The challenges associated with recycling healthcare plastics are not just challenges at the hospital level; instead, barriers to recycling exist across the entire plastics value chain, from product design and manufacturing through product use and disposal.
Examples of recycling barriers include product design features that inhibit recyclability; lack of training among hospital staff as to what is and what is not recyclable; limited space and infrastructure within hospitals to aggregate recyclable materials; varying recycler demand and availability to collect materials by geography; and a wide variety of plastics and additives used in the market today. All of these challenges hinder hospitals’ ability to recycle and require a multi-stakeholder approach to solve.
A Value Chain Approach
In response to these challenges, HPRC has coalesced stakeholders across the healthcare plastics value chain, including hospitals, healthcare manufacturing industry, recycling and waste management industries, and recycled plastics industry, to effectively tackle an ever-growing and complex waste management issue.
These stakeholders are working collaboratively to develop effective and sustainable solutions that inspire and enable the recycling of plastics used in the delivery of healthcare. This kind of multi-stakeholder collaboration and engagement across the value chain is a key recommendation in the New Plastics Economy and a necessary ingredient for circular economy success.
Chicago Regional Pilot Project
Perhaps the most concrete way in which HPRC is engaging with CE concepts is through our Chicago pilot project; HPRC, in collaboration with the plastics industry association (PLASTICS), has launched a multi-hospital plastics recycling project in Chicago. Focused on non-infectious plastic packaging and products collected from clinical areas of hospitals, the project seeks to demonstrate a viable business model for recycling healthcare plastics by bringing together regional stakeholders from all points of the value chain and facilitating collaboration and education. This approach helps alleviate recycling barriers and will serve as proof of concept for future regional endeavors.
Looking to the future, HPRC is assessing how circular economy concepts can be applied to healthcare plastics, including educating recyclers on the value of the materials and engaging potential end users to evaluate best and highest use of the materials to return healthcare plastics into the economy.
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