How Hospitals, Recyclers Can Make Recycling Healthcare Plastics Economically Viable


by | Dec 20, 2016

hospitalPlastics used in the healthcare industry — more than 10 billion pounds annually — are traditionally single-use, and tossed in the trash after being used.

Globally, only 14 percent of plastic packaging is collected for recycling.

To address low recycling rates and increase the amount of healthcare plastics managed in a circular economy approach, the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council and the Plastics Industry Association launched a multi-hospital plastics recycling project in the Chicago area.

Yesterday they published a report on the project that identifies best practices so that recyclers and healthcare facilities can replicate this business model in other markets.

A major barrier to achieving economic viability at individual hospitals is that the quantity of materials generated often does not represent sufficient commodity value necessary to attract recyclers. By including multiple hospitals in the area — Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, and NorthShore University HealthSystem’s Evanston, Skokie and Glenbrook Hospitals — the Chicago regional project overcame this barrier.

The project focused on non–infectious plastic packaging and products collected from clinical areas of the hospitals such as operating rooms and ambulatory surgery centers.

The hospitals collected a variety of healthcare plastics including polypropylene and polyethylene resins in the form of sterilization wrap, irrigation bottles, basins, pitchers, trays, Tyvek, and rigid and flexible packaging materials. Waste haulers transported these plastics to material recovery facilities for assessments related to composition and quality.

Complexity of material types, improper sorting, and the presence of non-conforming materials were the primary challenges in being able to extract the recycling value from the materials.

Companies providing logistics and recycling support included Waste Management, Lakeshore Recycling Systems and Antek Madison. Key Green Solutions, a sustainability management software service provider, collected and maintained project metrics. PLACON provided financial support to the project as an interested end-user looking to create new products from the recycled materials. Petoskey Plastics supplied specialized bags for collection and transportation of the plastic materials.

“In addition to testing the recovery and mechanical recycling of healthcare plastics, we were also able to explore alternative pathways of chemical recycling and conversion to fuel products with our technology partners,” said Kim Holmes, senior director of recycling and diversion at the Plastics Industry Association.

Key lessons learned include:

  • Keep it simple: Collection of plastic materials must be simple for clinical staff participation.
  • Program champions are critical: Tap engaged and committed program champions within each stakeholder group.
  • Behavioral change is a process: Remember that behavioral change can be slow and requires consistent reinforcement of the desired behaviors.
  • Discuss ownership: All stakeholders need to discuss and agree on who will be responsible for sorting as comingled materials have marginal value.
  • The economics must work: To make a business case, plastic materials must be available in sufficient volumes and processes must be in place to ensure a clean supply.

In other efforts to reduce medical waste through circular economy approaches, Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Ethicon, which manufacturers surgical devices, and Intermountain Healthcare teamed up to improve medical device collection and reprocess devices.

n 2015 this approach saved the health care company about $250,000 on medical devices, or 22 percent on total spending of $1.1 million. It also diverted 59,964 pounds of waste from landfills, avoiding 35,978.4 pounds of CO2 emissions.

The partnership works like this: Intermountain collects used medical devices. It returns them to Ethicon, which sends them to Sterilmed, also a Johnson & Johnson company, for reprocessing. Sterilmed turns the old devices into new ones and then Intermountain buys back a mix of reprocessed and OEM devices from Ethicon.

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