Encouraging Plastics Recycling in Hospitals and Beyond

The Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC) develops design guidelines for engineers that could drive recycling throughout the supply chain.

Design for Recycling” guidelines by the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC) are currently being reviewed by founding members DuPont, Becton, Dickinson and Company, Cardinal Health, Engineered Plastics, Hospira, Johnson & Johnson, Kimberly Clark, and Waste Management. Aiming to identify and overcome the disablers to recycling in the healthcare supply chain, the coalition decided that guidelines could encourage developers to build recyclability into both package and product design.

The guidelines address materials and their identification, then offer specific product and package examples with a technical approach, and finally state the environmental, economical, and societal benefits of recycling, explains Tod Christenson, HPRC director. “The guide definitely advocates recycling in the healthcare waste stream,” he says. “It will bring attention to what designers can do to encourage recycling in hospitals.”

Christenson acknowledges that the guide does look at only one aspect of sustainability, so it does not offer a means for conducting a life-cycle analysis (LCA) of any given package or product. “We encourage designers to do an LCA,” emphasizes Christenson. “It is prudent to evaluate and weigh all benefits and consequences. After all, the number-one priority in healthcare is patient health, which depends upon product quality and integrity. There are trade offs, so you must balance your decisions against these needs.”

But Christenson argues that maintaining product quality and integrity does not obviate recyclability. “We are taking an aspirational approach and identifying desirable design practices versus less desirable. There are decisions that can be made about materials that can fulfill both goals,” he says.

For instance, simply identifying whether an item can be recycled is a start.

Specific materials are discussed, with discussion of LCA work done for a variety of plastics. “PET and rPET generally offer a net positive benefit in all cases,” Christenson says. “There is the obvious environmental benefit of using recycled-content materials versus virgin materials. But of course, it is cheaper to buy virgin materials.”

Another consideration is the use of certain material combinations, he adds. “Consider the impact paper labels have on plastics. If there is more than one percent paper content in recycled-content plastic, you can actually see paper flakes in the molded product. We did our own small-scale test on frisbees made from recycled plastic and found bits of paper in the product. For PET to attain a higher market value for recyclability, for instance, there needs to be a clean stream with no paper, metals, silicone, or other elements.”

Other difficult-to-recycle combinations include bottles with induction foil left on the opening as well as certain pigments, Christenson says. “I don’t want to give these a bad connotation, but we must consider their impact. If you can increase the purity of the recyclate, you can improve the economics of recycling and increase the value of the materials, which can stimulate more recycling.”

Christenson admits that the market for recycled materials is still not mature, but nominal revenue is possible now. “Hospitals want to reduce their disposal costs, for one, so recycling can reduce waste. And if they can aggregate valuable materials, in many cases they can get paid,” he says.

Such considerations relate to HPRC’s other work. The group is developing a “Healthcare Facility Advisory Board” to help HPRC’s technical working group understand workflow within facilities and what inhibits recycling.

For more details, visit www.hprc.org.

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