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Can healthcare flexibles be diverted from landfills?

Can healthcare flexibles be diverted from landfills?
Image source: Shutterstock/Ideya

A significant amount of the plastic waste generated by hospitals is a flexible material of some sort, such as sterilization wrap or flexible packaging. Recycling such materials has been a challenge historically for various reasons. The Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC), which works to improve the recyclability of healthcare plastics, is launching a new study to better characterize such flexibles and determine their potential value to recyclers and beyond.

Kicking off this month, the Flexibles Recyclability Assessment will collect flexible materials from participating hospitals and route them for testing by plastics engineering graduate students at the University of Massachusetts Lowell (UMass Lowell) for testing. The program is funded primarily by the HPRC with some support from the Flexible Packaging Association, reports Alison Bryant, communications director for Antea Group and HPRC.

“Our pilot studies with Kaiser Permanente and Stanford University Hospital, and most recently in our Chicago regional recycling project, have shown that there are large quantities of healthcare plastic flexibles,” she tells PMP News. Of all healthcare recyclables, about 37% is sterilization wrap and 24% flexible packaging, according to HPRC.

Historically, recyclers haven’t been interested in such materials, she says. “Such flexibles can pose unique recycling challenges because some are multilaminates, for instance,” she says. “There is a broad spectrum of material used in flexible packaging, and it’s precisely this broad spectrum of material composition that is rendering it unrecyclable.”

Bryant said the most common flexible packaging in healthcare settings typically consist of HDPE and multiple other material types including polyester, EVA, PE, and/or nylon. 

“These combinations of different resins make it really hard for recyclers to recycle and resell these materials,” she says. “If recyclers choose to recycle these materials they have to jump through many hoops. But what’s more common is that recyclers will just refuse to take these materials at all – resulting in enormous quantities of flexible packaging ending up in landfills.”

However, “if we can better characterize these materials and understand their properties, perhaps recyclers can identify their value,” she says. 

Collecting such healthcare flexibles will be Cleveland Clinic, Lehigh Valley Hospital, and Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. Dartmouth will gather all the materials and send them to EREMA, a plastics recycling systems company, for densification. Material will then be shipped to Umass Lowell, where students will assess, separate, process, and injection-mold target materials into different samples that can then be evaluated through mechanical, rheological, and morphological testing. Students will then review potential applications for recycling.

The ultimate goal is to identify opportunities to recycle such flexible materials and divert them from landfills. “We’d really like to create more demand from recyclers for these flexibles,” says Bryant.

She also believes there is an “opportunity for packaging engineers to do a better job of designing for recycling and thinking about what that material’s next life will be.” Some potential solutions include embracing circular economy concepts and designing with mono-material or compatible materials, she adds.

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