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85% of US medical plastic waste is ‘clean’… but small portion is recycled

Healthcare facilities across America generate around 14 000 tons of waste per day. Up to 25% of this is made up of plastic products such as packaging. The US Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council has created a detailed guidance document to help boost recycling rates of commonly binned medical waste.

By weight, almost 5 million pounds (or 40%) of plastic scrap generated at US hospitals is sterilisation wrap. Another 25% comprises other types of flexible non-woven and film packaging, while 19% represents paper, roughly 10% are rigid plastics. Around 5% is a mix of glass, metal, and foil.

The fact is that a lot of materials are incinerated or landfilled without reason, urges the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council. It estimates that the ‘vast majority’ of that medical plastic waste – up to 85% – is non-infectious. Overall, it is believed that 1 million tons of clean, non-infectious healthcare plastics is generated at healthcare facilities nation-wide every year.

‘While the potential of this largely untapped waste stream is obvious, how to access this waste stream can be less clear,’ the council observes.  In its guidance document, it shares four ‘best practice’ case studies involving; Mayo Clinic, a hospital network in Providence; Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center; and a partnership between Goodwill and Kaiser Permanente.

It also gives an update on its initiative HospiCycle, which is a free toolkit for hospitals looking to start or expand their plastics recycling programme. The online toolkit helps with anything from basic waste characterisation, listing recyclable plastics and different recycling processes, to finding local recycling partners. It also states how to create a material flow, how to set realistic yet ambitious goals, while providing an overview of relevant regulations.

Two dedicated plastic medical waste recycling pilots have been completed in Standford and Chicago. A complete timeline dating back to 2013 is given, with a white paper-style article on the most urgent challenges and solutions. Breaking it down, the lessons learned are;

  • Keep it simple
  • Behavioural change is a process
  • In-house champions are critical
  • Comingled materials have marginal value
  • Reduce the variety and complexity of plastic materials used in healthcare
  • The economics must be favourable to recyclers
  • Clinical plastics recycling supports broader sustainability initiatives

More information is available here.

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