September 25, 2021

What if we could recycle mixed types of plastic? 

What if it was not as big of a problem if the plastic were clean of labels or biocontamination? 

What if the plastic that came through recycling was virgin plastic? 

What if the power to recycle the plastic came from the plastic itself? 

All of this can be made possible with a process being called Advanced Recycling that looks and feels a lot different than the traditional mechanical recycling. 

This solution could greatly improve the medical packaging waste challenge that the healthcare industry is facing right now. Medical plastic packaging has and will continue to play key role in the ensuring the safe delivery of sterile products to healthcare facilities. Medical packaging not only has to meet stringent quality standards and sterilization conditions, these packages need to keep medical products free of contaminant while also being user friendly for medical professionals. And even though switch from glass packaging to plastic packaging saved the industry on cost and energy usage, the environment is still a concern for the healthcare industry. 

The growth in use of plastic packaging for healthcare products has created challenges in disposing of those packages. According to an ongoing study HPRC is conducting about new recycling methods, they state that, “An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 tons of high-quality, non-hazardous, medical packaging is entering our municipal waste system every day on a global basis, and only 14-18% of that plastic waste is being recycled” 

There is a lot of untapped potential in the improvement of recycling healthcare plastics, but there are a lot of challenges that are present that have allowed that potential to be addressed. According to the HPRC some of those challenges include: 

  • Collecting and sorting: There are often challenges for healthcare end-users to generate enough volume in high purity or homogeneous plastic waste to attract traditional mechanical recyclers to participate in disposal.
  • Contamination: The most common type of contamination is biological, however, contamination by foreign materials can also occur.
  • Multi-laminate flexible packaging: This type of packaging can include plastic bags, stretch, and shrink film, sterilization wrap, and medical device sterile packaging and makes up a large volume of healthcare plastic. The problem with including this in mechanical recycling processes is the complications that are presented by having so many polymers and material present due to multi-material packaging designs.
  • Logistics: Simply put, the logistics processes for the healthcare plastics waste stream just aren’t well developed. According to HPRC, “due to the absence of sorting at the source in a majority of healthcare facilities nationwide, almost all non-hazardous healthcare waste is incorporate into Municipal Solid Waste, which is collected by local waste haulers and disposed of in landfills” (HPRC Advanced Recycling of Healthcare Plastics).
  • Market Volatility: This is a major barrier in developing recycling infrastructure to support a robust recycling strategy for healthcare plastics. While this is not a new concern, it is understood that the demand for recycled plastics is affected by the price of virgin commodity plastics.

These challenges prompted the HPRC to not only start inspiring companies in the healthcare industry to create and provide new recyclability and recycling solutions but to also investigate advanced recycling technologies to assist in the disposal of healthcare plastics. In 2020, the group initiated their project to explore alternative, advanced recycling technologies to see what could be applicable to the healthcare industry. According to HPRC, “advanced recycling is a combination of several different technologies that compliment traditional mechanical recycling to address plastic waste that is too degraded, complex, or contaminated to be recycled by mechanical means alone” (HPRC Advanced Recycling of Healthcare Plastics). The advanced recycling technologies are divided into three categories: 

  • Purification: This process separates plastic polymers from additives, colorant, odor, and other resins. Once the purified polymers have separated, they can be made into new plastics 
  • Decomposition/depolymerization: This consists of a few chemical processes that break down the molecular bonds between plastics into monomers and intermediates. Like purification, the end products can be used to make new plastics.
  • Thermal Conversion: This process brings plastics back to their most basic petrochemical state by breaking down molecular bonds. This process results in liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons that can be used for fuels and as raw materials for the circular repolymerization of new plastics.

HPRC believes that these advanced recycling technologies have the potential to not only help reduce the ecological impact of the thousands of tons of healthcare waste anticipated to be sent to landfills, but it will also support a circular economy strategy for plastic waste that is essential for reducing our reliance on virgin feedstocks. While TEQ does see these new recycling technologies as an important part of the future of healthcare industry, we still feel it’s equally as important to provide recyclable solutions to healthcare companies. Our TEQethylene monopolymer sterile barrier system is just one example of this. 

Learn more about TEQ's sustainable solutions