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How to implement circularity in the medical plastics field

Nicolle Portilla, social media manager at RTS, shares how to implement circularity in the medical plastics field.

× Plastic is one of the essential materials used in the global economy. It has wide-ranging applications across the biggest industries and is a cost-effective solution that is easy to produce and transport. The healthcare industry is one of the fields that make extensive use of plastic, as it is an incredibly versatile material that is used in the manufacturing of medical equipment.  

However, plastic production is one of the leading causes of pollution worldwide. With over 380 million tons of plastic produced every year, a huge portion of it is never reused but simply dumped in landfills and oceans. And healthcare facilities overall are known to generate tens of thousands of tons of plastic waste per day. The irony is that around 85% of hospital waste is free from any contamination and health hazards — making it ideal for recycling and reusing. 

The Challenges of Adopting Circularity in Medial Plastics 

The circular economy is a production and consumption model that has reusing, recycling, and repairing existing materials at its core. There are, however, many challenges within adopting circularity in the medical plastics industry, such as: 

Regulatory Issues and Market Barriers 

The plastic industry is enormous, and medical plastics are only a tiny fraction of the entire thing. As a result, there is not enough budget and willingness to invest in new and better recycling infrastructure and practices.  

On top of that, healthcare is a field that is under heavy regulation by government bodies. Most manufacturers of medical devices follow strict rules and are hesitant to deviate from the established formula. Introducing new materials into the manufacturing process will most likely be problematic in terms of regulation and industry standards. 

Inconsistent Performance 

Another thing to keep in mind regarding medical plastics is that they need to meet certain requirements in order to be effective. In addition to overall strength and flexibility, manufacturers also have to consider sterilisation compatibility, permeability, and microbial barrier characteristics. If a product does not meet the standards in those categories, it will not perform as needed.  

Unfortunately, as of now, incorporating recycled content in medical plastics results in inconsistent performance. Research has shown that there are significant challenges in terms of maintaining product integrity and overall quality.  

Problems With Traceability 

Also, there are specific standards and regulations when it comes to the traceability of medical devices and products. In order to find the cause of issues quickly and effectively, manufacturers are required to keep a Device History Record (or simply DHR). DHR essentially traces any material content used in a product back to its source. Therefore, using recycled plastic for medical materials is quite impractical and in direct contradiction to those regulations. 

Opportunities for Implementing Circularity in Medical Plastics 

While fully adopting circularity in medical plastics is still not possible, there are many new developments that will make the process easier. Technological advancements and legislative incentives will make the transition smoother for medical plastic manufacturers across the globe.  

Innovation in Recycling Tech 

The technology involved in plastic recycling is constantly undergoing changes and improvements. The main issue is that recycled plastics often suffer from downgrades in quality, impacting their performance and durability. However, new developments will make it possible to recycle plastic more effectively, resulting in a product that performs as if it was manufactured with brand new materials. 

Better Recycling Infrastructure and Legislation 

Combating pollution and climate change is more needed than ever, and the topic is on the agenda of many global alliances, associations, and governments. As a result, more and more investments are being made across the globe to improve recycling infrastructure and technology. What is more, local governments are further regulating the plastic industry while incentivising manufacturers to adopt circularity in their processes. 

Such developments will help deal both with regulatory challenges and market limitations. We can expect medical device manufacturers to rapidly implement circularity, as the barriers and complications surrounding the transitions disappear in the near future. 

Using Recycled Materials in Non-Sterile Products 

As we already mentioned, there are strict regulations regarding the plastic used in medical devices. While recycled materials currently have performance issues, tests show that they are quite usable for non-sterile products and packaging. Certain devices and packaging do not need to be sterile, since they are sanitised right before use by hospital personnel. Other medical devices, such as disposal bins, are not required to be sterile at all. Until recycling technology improves and proper infrastructure is created, manufacturers should focus on using recycled materials for such products as much as possible. 

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Publication date: 31/01/2023

Medical Plastics News

This project has been co-funded with the support of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union [LIFE17 ENV/ES/000438] Life programme

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Last update: 2022-01-31