Study Into Recycling Medical Plastics Could Provide Cure For Hospitals

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By P.J. Heller

A study into creating a single waste stream of flexible plastics from hospitals and converting that material into new products – rather than shipping it off as waste to bulging landfills – could, if successful, provide medical facilities nationwide with a new viable recycling alternative. 

“This is an opportunity to find viable solutions to remove more plastics from our landfills,” says Zac Conaway, manager of waste, recycling and training for Waste Management and Environmental Services at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

“All of us are looking at our environment and how we affect our environment from a healthcare standpoint,” says Conaway, who also serves as coordinator of the Environmental Sustainability Council at the Lebanon, NH, medical center. “One of the big things from a waste standpoint is we’re running out of landfill space and the cost to dispose of our waste is going to be exponentially growing over next number of years. The goal of the study is to look at innovative ways to reduce what we send to the landfill and pulling out material that can be used in another form.”

Dartmouth-Hitchcock, along with the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and Lehigh Valley Health Network in Pennsylvania, are participating in the study under the auspices of the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC).

Although recyclers have been willing to accept used clean blue sterilization wrap -- a polypropylene material which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates accounts for 19 percent of all operating room waste -- they have generally balked at taking in other flexible plastics used in packaging for disposal medical supplies from hospital operating rooms.

Some of the flexible plastic has been shipped overseas, including to Southeast Asia, China, Taiwan, Vietnam and India, but Conaway says those countries and others have tightened up on what they will accept for recycling or have stopped accepting the flexible plastic materials entirely.

“I think that’s what brings this project into relevance,” he says. “With fewer and fewer avenues internationally being created, generating avenues for recycling within the U.S. would be even better. We need to find innovative solutions to create viable recycling streams domestically.”

Peylina Chu, executive director of the plastics council, says the flexible packaging materials are especially challenging for recyclers because the type of plastic used is often not known.

“Is it polyethylene? Is it polypropylene? Is it PVC? Some of the packaging is multi-laminate, so it’s got multiple materials sandwiched between plastic. There might be a nylon film. There might be a polyester film. You can’t readily tell by just looking at it whether it’s a multi-laminate or not,” Chu says.

The aim of the study, which began in early 2018, is to develop a “recipe” that will allow the materials to be blended to create new viable products. It follows on a study several years ago conducted by HPRC in collaboration with Penn State, where Plastics Engineering students tested and analyzed the physical properties associated with various blends of recycled plastics and virgin resin. That study concluded that “healthcare plastics have great potential as an untapped source for materials for recyclers . . .”

The current study is expected to look into combining the flexible plastics with commercially available compatibilizers, which are additives that allow two polymer resins to bond and stabilize, resulting in an improved final product. That part of the study will be conducted by researchers in the plastics engineering department at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

“Through this project, we hope to shed some light on the physical properties these materials will have when processed with different types of compatibilizers applied in varying concentrations,” said Chris Rogers, project manager for HPRC, in a news release announcing the program. “By better understanding these properties, recyclers can better determine potential opportunities to compound these materials with other products for resale markets and therefore better understand their value.”

“The volume of discarded healthcare plastics is huge and the ability to recycle this material would reduce the landfill burden while preserving the value of these highly engineered products,” said Margaret J. Sobkowicz, associate professor at U Mass Lowell, in the same release. “The students participating in this research will not only learn hands-on processing skills, but they will also gain appreciation for the importance of sustainability in the plastics industry.”

Chu estimates that 1 million tons of healthcare plastics come out of hospitals annually, a majority of which goes to landfills or is incinerated. Of that, 35 percent is blue wrap and 25 percent is other mixed flexible packaging; the remaining 40 percent is rigid plastics, such as bottles and trays.

Flexible plastic materials, consisting of sterilization wrap and film packaging, were gathered at Cleveland Clinic and Lehigh Health Network and shipped to Dartmouth-Hitchcock, which collected only non-rigid plastics. Some 2,000 pounds of materials were collected between April and June, Conaway reports.

The material is scheduled to be sent to EREMA, a manufacturer of plastic recycling equipment, where it will undergo initial processing at the company’s Ipswich, MA facility. From there, it will go the U Mass Lowell.

Preliminary results are expected in November. A report on the findings is expected to be published early next year.

“We’re really trying to get to a point where we are able to combine this material into a viable product after it’s recycled,” explains Conaway. “The big question right now is, if we melt all of this down and turn it into resin can that resin be made into something from a rigid plastic standpoint that will hold its structure and mold together properly.”

“We are hoping to identify targets and end markets for which this would be suitable,” adds Chu, noting that the automotive and construction industries are among those who could be likely opportunities.

She says recyclers as well as other users of flexible plastics, such as those in the food and beverage industry, are interested in seeing the results of the study.

“What we’re really trying to do it get the interest of recyclers,” Chu says. “If recyclers understand what these materials are and the characteristics of these materials, then they can go and find markets for it. Once they find those markets, that will create the demand for pulling these plastics from the hospitals. It’s really being able to create that end-market demand. Hospitals know they want to recycle this material. The problem is recyclers don’t know what the material is and therefore they can’t go and find a market for it. We want to help them understand what this material is, help them find suitable markets for it and then that’s going to create the pull to get these materials out of the hospitals and into the marketplace.”

The study is funded by HPRC members Baxter, BD, DuPont, Eastman, Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic, Nelipak Healthcare Packaging and the Flexible Packaging Association.

HPRC, headquartered in St. Paul, MN, describes itself as “a private, technical consortium of industry peers across healthcare, recycling and waste management industries seeking to improve the recyclability of plastic products and packaging within healthcare.” It was founded in 2010.

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