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Some Australian hospitals recycling PVC medical waste

By: Kate Tilley

May 15, 2013

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — A recycling program operating in two Australian states — Victoria and New South Wales (NSW) — has turned 33,000 pounds of hospital PVC waste into industrial hoses and non-slip floor mats.

Australia’s national PVC industry body, the Melbourne-based Vinyl Council of Australia, is collaborating with manufacturers to recycle commonly used PVC medical products, specifically tubing, intravenous fluid bags and oxygen masks.

The Australian health-care market consumes more than 5.5 million pounds, or more than 50 million, PVC IV fluid bags a year. VCA estimates plastics account for about one-third of hospitals’ general waste, most of which is sent to landfill. Of that plastic waste, about 25 percent is PVC.

The PVC Recovery in Hospitals program has been tested in four hospitals since 2009 — three in Victoria and one in NSW. Hospital staff members separate recyclable PVC products after use. They are collected by PVC recyclers that manufacture the waste into products.

VCA CEO Sophi MacMillan said the trials showed educating hospitals is vital if recycling is to be successful. VCA collaborated with hospital staff, recyclers, the NSW and Victorian governments and Sydney-based medical product manufacturer Baxter Healthcare Pty. Ltd. to create educational tool kits.

The kits — which include a short video, training slides and step-by-step guides — were released in March. “We didn’t want to expand the program before educational packs were developed,” MacMillan said.

The program now operates in six hospitals and medical centers, including a dialysis center. Another two hospitals are in the early stages of implementing the program and four more registered interest online after the tool kits were released.

MacMillan said although only 33,000 pounds of PVC waste has been recycled since 2009, she expects recycling rates to increase quickly. “In the first two years, volume was low, but it’s now picking up.”

Two Melbourne-based companies recycle the medical waste — SRM Plastics Pty. Ltd. and Cryogrind Australia Pty. Ltd. Waste collected in NSW is transported to Cryogrind’s Geelong depot.

MacMillan said recyclers support the program because Australian plastic product manufacturers often struggle to find consistent supplies of good-quality recycled plastics. The program’s purpose is to improve the quality of Australia’s PVC recycling capabilities.

“This program ensures we keep waste on-shore,” she said. “[PVC hospital waste] material is very attractive to recyclers because it has no pigment.”

Recycled plastics are often colored, which limits re-use options.

SRM Plastics and Cryogrind manufacture non-slip mats and industrial hoses, but MacMillan said they are developing other uses such as general PVC compounds, carpet backing and vinyl floor tiles.

She said the program may expand into other states and territories, with one Tasmanian hospital registering interest, but VCA had not yet located a PVC recycler in Australia’s island state.

Dr. Forbes McGain, a Melbourne-based anesthesiologist and intensive-care unit physician, approached VCA in 2009 with the idea. “The program occurred to me when I spent a lot of time chucking things away and watching other people doing the same. It was relatively easy to find people who agreed with me that we’ve got to do something about it,” he said.

MacMillan was previously “unaware” of what happened to plastic products when hospitals were finished with them, and assumed they went into infectious waste. “I was surprised at the amount of plastics that went into general waste,” she said.

“[Hospital staffers] have been used to doing things a certain way for a long time and it will take time for people to adjust to a new system. Therefore, a process of continually engaging staff in how to implement the PVC Recovery in Hospitals program is required,” MacMillan said.

She said she knows of no other medical waste recycling programs operating nationally or internationally.