Hospitals and medical device makers are starting to face the same pressures for more sustainable use of plastics that consumer product companies have been grappling with.
The medical industry doesn't face the intense scrutiny that has been directed at soft drink makers or other big consumer brands, but there's been a clear push for the sector to "do something" about plastics, said Peylina Chu, executive director of the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council.
"For all of the large health care organizations, sustainability is becoming more and more of a priority," Chu said. "They are very vocal and have huge procurement budgets, and they're pushing hard on their suppliers like Johnson & Johnson and Baxter and BD to do something about all of the plastics that are coming into our hospitals."
"Doing something" in some cases has meant pledges to use more recycled content in packaging and, when possible, devices.
Greening the materials used in health care has always been more challenging than for other industries because of the overriding need for patient safety. The failure of a medical device is a lot more serious than the failure of a Coke bottle.
The coronavirus pandemic, as well, has introduced a new wild card. Chu said it's basically put a pause on new plastics recycling initiatives while hospitals deal with an unprecedented situation for both patient care and finances.
Still, she said that advocates for more sustainable use of plastics in health care will keep working.
HPRC released two reports in recent months making a case for more plastics recycling in hospitals, with one suggesting potential for collecting flexible medical packaging waste and turning it into pellets with real world applications.
The group also plans to focus this year on the potential for chemical recycling in handling medical plastics waste, an area where it sees strong potential, Chu said.
There's interest from other sources: A government-funded materials research center at Troy University in Alabama, for example, announced a multiyear project in early April tackling technical challenges around medical plastics recycling.
Chu said pressure is coming both from the public and from health care workers who want to see their workplaces use plastics in a more environmentally friendly way.
HPRC's reports note that many innovations in health would not be possible without the design innovations and performance of plastics. But the group points to growing interest among hospitals to move away from the "make-use-dispose" model of consumption.
"Johnson & Johnson, Baxter, BD, Medtronic — they're all part of HPRC because they are feeling the pressure from their customers to, again, just do something about all of this plastic," Chu said. "You have very passionate nurses that see all of this plastic coming into their workplace and everybody's recycling at home and they don't understand why their hospital is not able to recycle."