Single-Use Plastic Scrutiny Reaches Medical Industry

A stack of packaged medical plasticPlastic pollution is one of the most pressing environmental issues. The increased production and disposal of single-use plastics, in particular, continues to overwhelm the world’s ability to deal with them. Research shows plastic pollution to be as prevalent in the global environment as other, more infamous pollutants like lead. 

While several countries have begun pushing legislation to ban the use of single-use plastics, the medical industry remains heavily reliant on this material.

The Importance of Single-use Plastics in the Medical Sector

Hygiene and infection control is a top priority in any hospital or medical facility. In this regard, single-use plastics perform a vital role in the medical industry by preventing the spread of bacteria and infectious diseases. 

Disposable medical tools, such as syringes, drug tests, bandages, and gloves (all of which are typically made from plastics), are a necessity when handling bodily fluids. In the medical research field, plastic pipettes, vials, and sample bags, are also common. Since many of these instruments cannot be reused due to the risk of cross-contamination, single-use plastics are ideal for these applications. 

In addition to their strength, resilience, and safety, single-use plastics are also preferred due to cost-effectiveness. In an industry where products are tossed out frequently, it is economically feasible to use items made from the cheapest available materials. 

The Problem with Medical Single-use Plastics

Healthcare facilities in the U.S. alone generate 3,500 tons of waste every day, accounting for more than 25% of their total daily generated waste.  

One of the challenges with addressing plastic waste in the healthcare world is treating the material after use. Recycling single-use medical plastics is currently not possible due to the risk of cross-contamination and infection; for medical devices, destruction by incineration is typically preferred. 

Furthermore, the chemical composition of some plastic products makes it impossible to recycle them using traditional methods. 

Due to stringent sterility safety requirements, there are a limited amount of materials that can be used in the medical industry. While other alternatives, such as glass and stainless steel, have been proposed, they present challenges regarding decontamination and transportation. Additionally, these alternative materials have significantly higher manufacturing costs, which can have an adverse effect on the cost of private and public healthcare. 

The Future of Plastic Use in the Medical Industry

As pressure continues to mount on the healthcare industry, researchers are seeking ways to minimize the environmental impact of single-use plastics. One of the solutions is to gradually eliminate the use of PVC (one of the most environmentally damaging plastics) in the medical industry.  

Studies show that polyolefin-based elastomer provides better environmental performance in terms of energy used during production and emissions released during incineration. The proposed solution, therefore, is not to abandon plastics totally, but change the types of plastic being used. This solution maintains the benefits of single-use medical plastics while minimizing adverse impacts on the environment during end-of-life treatment. 


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