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Is it possible to reuse plastic in the medical sector?

Is it possible to reuse all plastic for use in healthcare? What progress has been made in this regard?

While more and more people around the world are striving for a more sustainable lifestyle, the reality is that ridding the world of plastic is an increasingly challenging task in places like the workplace and the home. Eradicating the use of single-use plastic materials in the medical sector and hospitals is a much more challenging reality.

While the healthcare community is aware of the damage plastic causes to the environment, it is also important to be clear on why these professionals and institutions turn to plastic on a daily basis: it is a cheap tool, its durability is unquestionable and it can be easily sterilized in an environment where sterilization is crucial.

Using recycled plastic in the medical sector: utopia or reality?

Single-use plastic objects that are contaminated and hazardous to health are easily disposed of by medical professionals and provide an efficient alternative to facilitate health care and hygiene in medical facilities. However, along the way, considerable damage is done to the environment and the use of this material becomes controversial.

It is estimated that hospitals generate more than 5 million tons of waste annually, and 25 percent of this waste is plastic (1,250,000 tons). However, although it is possible to reduce single-use plastic items in the medical sector, there are certain issues that need to be considered, perhaps the most important of which is the safety of patients and medical professionals.

If single-use plastic can be replaced, it must be a material that offers the same health benefits for the entire system, and this includes doctors, nurses and patients. Unfortunately, this "substitute" material has not yet arrived.

So, the second option is the reuse of plastic waste. Is it possible? A study published in December 2020 says that human safety and planetary safety are not always in conflict when it comes to using plastics in medicine. The report claims that 80 percent of U.S. healthcare industry emissions come from the medical supply chain, and that this figure can be reduced through the "reprocessing" of medical devices.

In 2018, the reprocessing of these devices implied savings for medical institutions of up to US$ 470 million, while managing to prevent more than 6.8 thousand tons of medical waste from reaching landfills. It is important to clarify that reprocessing does not include materials such as needles, catheters and syringes. These items must undergo recycling. The study focuses on devices such as blood pressure cuffs, ultrasound probes, laparoscopic materials, among others.

The challenges of medical device reprocessing

Although investment in medical reuse systems represents an opportunity to reduce emissions in this industry, manufacturers of medical devices and products have inhibited the adoption of reprocessing by including "single-use" labels on items that can be safely reused. The study claims that these companies intentionally shorten the expiration dates on their products and put completely unnecessary holes in the devices to make them much more complex to clean.

As we have mentioned in other articles in our blog, the role of governments is fundamental to reduce climate change and pollution. But what alternatives do we have when the same agencies that regulate the healthcare industry promote the manufacture of single-use medical products instead of reusable items? Will governments continue to save healthcare manufacturers money to avoid reprocessing? These are questions that have yet to be clearly answered.

So far, the most viable alternatives to reduce the footprint of this sector are to adopt decontamination methods that are more environmentally friendly. Moreover, the reprocessing of medical products is only the tip of the iceberg and is far from being the best solution.

What are the options for the future?

It's not all bad news. Reusable solutions already exist in the medical sector, such as steel surgical materials and fiber-optic endoscopes. Moreover, if governments aim to design regulations that facilitate the production of medical devices that can be reused, global emissions reduction targets will be much more achievable.

If governments and medical professionals want an incentive to reduce their carbon footprint, they should pay more attention to the threat that climate change poses to life expectancy across the planet. In fact, rising global temperatures could undo at least 50 years of advances in the public health care sector.

Perhaps one of the most viable methods to contribute to the reduction of the medical sector's carbon footprint is to transform its linear model of economics into a circular model.

As we have discussed in previous articles, this includes designing and manufacturing more durable items, promoting the reuse of materials in the industry, and creating new regulations that encourage manufacturing companies to create products suitable for reuse.

In addition, there is a need to increase awareness of the recycling process among medical personnel in hospitals and to conduct periodic audits to assess that regulations are being fully complied with.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of medical supplies in many regions of the world, many hospitals have begun to reuse oxygen bags, oxygen masks and other tools. It is much easier to disinfect and reuse these materials rather than discard them and manufacture new products.

With the possibility of future disruptions in the medical supply chain, similar to that seen during the pandemic, it is paramount that the healthcare system find new alternatives to avoid supply shortages. Once at this point, when reuse is not possible, recycling may be the best option.

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