While the professional healthcare industry has existed in some form for the last 200 years, manmade plastic was only invented in 1907 and was only introduced to the medical field in the late 1950s.
In 2016, the World Economic Forum made a prediction that there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050. While this is certainly alarming, it does pose the question, how have we done so much damage in little more than 100 years?
According to Dr Simon Werrett, a science historian and professor at University College London, research suggests that 85 percent of items in the medical industry are disposable — otherwise known as single-use. With a desire to look at how materials were approached in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Werrett’s research looks at reusable and repurposed plastic items.
The cost of single-use plastic, both in money and environmental impact, is significant. However, naturally there are reasons why single-use plastics are favoured in medical settings. Cleanliness is the most obvious and critical reason for disposable plastics. In an environment ruled by sterilising and standards, it is easy to see that this is where plastics find their place. After all, they have made healthcare safer, simpler and in some cases, smarter.
For example, disposable syringes are one of the best ways to limit the spread of infection, intravenous blood bags are lighter in weight and plastics used as key pieces in prosthetic devices make for smoother and smarter joint repairs. But at what cost?
Earlier in 2019, a photographer in Guernsey took a striking photo showing a young baby holding a disposable plastic syringe that had washed ashore. While these single-use medical products are designed with the best intentions, they are disposed of in a similar way to other single-use plastics. And that ultimately means they can come back to haunt us, as they float in our oceans or lie in landfill for hundreds of years.
After years of researching these issues and obstacles, Teysha Technologies has developed a plug-and-play system that uses natural-product based building blocks to create polymers that react and behave in ways similar to the plastics we see every day. The physical, mechanical and chemical properties can be tuned to make the polymer viable in a variety of applications, including the medical sector.
Additionally, the biodegradation rate can also be optimised, so the plastics break down in a matter of years or weeks, depending on the needs of a specific application, and return to their natural building blocks. This breakthrough in modern plastics offers a route to a more sustainable plastic solution and addresses the problem we are faced with, head on.
Single-use plastics might have earned themselves a bad name, but nobody could argue that plastic syringes or disposable cups for patients are a bad thing in healthcare. If these are manufactured with tuneable, biodegradable polymers, we can ensure that the impact of these products on human life is purely positive.