How healthcare facilities balance patient and environmental safety when it comes to single-use plastics
It seems just about every industry is looking to phase out single-use plastics. Restaurants across the country and even the world are ditching plastic straws. Starbucks will stop selling them by the end of 2020. Governments, too. China’s banning bags that are not biodegradable, in big cities by the end of this year and in towns and the countryside by 2022. California has banned plastic straws from restaurant tables—customers have to ask for one—and cities throughout the US are following suit. California has also banned single-use plastic bags at grocery stores, although people can still buy thicker “multi-use” bags for 10 cents a pop. Even with the loophole, usage is down dramatically.
The reasons are clear. Americans use up to half a billion plastic straws per day, and most end up in the ocean because they are too lightweight to make it through recycling sorters. When fish and seabirds eat them, they die at rates up to 50%. Microplastics can end up in our seafood and can cause cancer if we ingest them. As for plastic bags, the world uses about 500 billion of them every year, and there are 8 million metric tons of them in the oceans. They also require fossil fuels in production.
Yet, there’s one industry where single-use plastics are very useful, even life-saving: healthcare. In hospitals, they prevent the spread of bacteria and infection. They also allow for design innovation at low costs. But up to a quarter of healthcare facilities’ waste is plastics, about 3,500 tons every day. How do they live up to the principle “do no harm” when single-use plastics have the power to help and harm?
What is reusable
Hospitals and other healthcare facilities use plastics for just about everything. Syringes, IV bags, catheters, test kits, and oh so many gloves can’t and really shouldn’t be reused. The risk of infection spread far outweighs the benefits of recycling these items. Anything that requires its own bin with biohazard warnings all over it is definitely not something you want touching other sick people.
Fortunately, though, these infectious, toxic, or radioactive materials make up only 15% of medical waste, according to the World Health Organization. The rest is nonhazardous, and the WHO recommends better waste segregation to ensure reusable materials are not getting tossed out with the hazardous stuff. Where possible, the WHO also urges environmentally sound treatment of hazardous materials, such as autoclaving, microwaving, chemical treatment, or steam treatment integrated with internal mixing rather than incineration, which releases greenhouse gases into the air. EnviroPouch is a reusable steam sterilization pouch that promises a minimum of 200 uses.
Another step in the right direction could be changing the type of plastic facilities use. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a common plastic in hospitals. When incinerated, it gives off toxic chemicals.
“There are still certainly different types of plastics that could be recovered that aren’t being recovered today for a number of reasons,” Kim Holmes, then-vice president of sustainability at the Plastics Industry Association, told National Geographic in 2019.
Polyolefin-based elastomers such as Kuraray’s medical supplies require less energy to produce and give off fewer emissions than PVC does.
Measures in action
Increasing the amount of recycling of those nonhazardous items, regardless of what type of plastic they’re made from, is the mission of the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council. The council’s HospiCycle program gives healthcare providers comprehensive tips on how to increase recycling. Amcor, a global leader in packaging production, came on board in February, as part of its pledge to have all its packaging be either recyclable or reusable by 2025.
“The healthcare industry poses a unique recycling opportunity,” Amcor vice president of sustainability David Clark said in a press release. “Amcor has global experience in developing more easily recyclable packaging, and we share HPRC’s vision of improving recycling rates of healthcare plastics.”
Practice Greenhealth, which offers sustainability solutions for healthcare, helps medical facilities identify areas where they can replace single-use plastics with reusables. A big one is “blue wrap,” ubiquitous in surgical theaters for its ability to maintain the sterility of surgical tools. Up to 225 million pounds of the stuff gets thrown out each year. At the University of Chicago Health, operating room nurses collected blue wrap for two months, keeping three quarters of it out of landfills. They sewed 22 sleeping mats out of blue wrap for donation to the homeless.
“The project has been such a hit that for the second event we have almost 30 people and the chef in the local café at U of C providing boxed lunches for us because he was so inspired by our efforts to help the community and environment,” operating room associate director Amber Kratochvil told Practice Greenhealth. “We now have staff from all over the university, not only the OR, coming to help. … We have a more streamlined process so are hoping to make even more mats.”
On a larger scale, Halyard Health’s Blue Renew program diverts more than 4 million pounds of Halyard’s blue wrap from landfills annually. More than 400 hospitals nationwide participate in Blue Renew.
“It was important to Halyard when developing the Blue Renew program that the wrap benefit the local community in its reuse,” Halyard associate marketing director Joseph Hannibal said. “Halyard works with recyclers to keep the wrap free from harsh chemicals as the material melts into resin used to manufacture a variety of products that can be used both inside and outside of the hospital setting.”
Since 2011, the Cleveland Clinic has cleaned and repurposed unused devices that come packaged with single-use plastics that do get used. In 2018 alone, the effort saved 66 tons of devices.
Now those are some helpful measures.