How Are Plastics Recycled in Healthcare?

How Are Plastics Recycled in Healthcare?
2 March 2023

How Are Plastics Recycled in Healthcare?

The UK is the largest producer of healthcare waste and the largest user of single-use plastics in Europe, with 11,300 tonnes of waste per day, 22.7% of which is plastic waste. That’s 2.5k tonnes of plastic waste being produced every day by the NHS alone.

Recycling in healthcare is becoming a more significant issue daily as huge amounts of plastic are generated without an equal effort to dispose of them correctly. So what does plastic use look like in healthcare, and how is plastic waste handled?

A nurse with a syringe

Why is Plastic Used in Healthcare?

Plastics are highly versatile and hence practically indispensable in the medical sector. Plastic equipment can be made quickly, cheaply, and to any spec for a single-use application which, in an environment where sterility is absolutely essential at times, is a high-value benefit over reusable first aid tools and equipment.

Where the risks, time, and costs associated with sterilising reusable items can be replaced with disposable ones, it’s easy to see how plastic has become such a widely used material in medicine and healthcare. 

As a material, there are so many benefits to plastic in patient care. It can be easily moulded to suit the needs of virtually any application and any person. It can be transparent, which is an important factor when working with airway management or open wounds to prevent the field of vision from being obstructed. It is light and easy to manipulate, too, and generally water-resistant.

Plastic Recycling Challenges Faced in Healthcare 

Safety and sustainability in the workplace must be balanced carefully, especially in healthcare, where people are at a heightened risk. These days, it feels like sometimes plastic simply cannot be replaced with a more sustainable material in healthcare. But recycling plastic is not straightforward. 

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How is plastic recycled?

The process of recycling plastic is as follows.

Recycling plastic cycle
  1. Sorting by polymer type
  2. Breaking down and shredding into tiny pieces
  3. Washing
  4. Melting
  5. Pelletising (cutting the plastic into evenly-sized small cylindrical pellets)

The pellets are then used in processes to create new items.

Plastics need to be properly recycled for the material to be reused. When plastics aren’t reused and recycled as much as possible, it contributes to waste going to landfill, carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, energy consumption associated with creating new plastic items, and higher use of non-renewable fossil fuels.

But in the healthcare industry, some challenges mean plastic recycling isn’t optimised. Of the 36% of healthcare waste that is plastic in Europe, 42% is incinerated, contributing to toxic greenhouse gas emissions.

So why is so much plastic avoiding regular plastic recycling streams?

1. Issues Sorting Plastic Types

Many plastic products in healthcare have been shown to either ambiguously label their polymer list or contain a mixture of several types of polymer (as seen in this study on plastic waste in Denmark, where at least 15 polymer types were identified).

Not all plastics are created equal, and in order for plastic to be recycled correctly, the different resin types need to be separated out. The resin identification code, developed by the Plastics Industry Association, helps to identify plastic types for specific recycling streams.

So identifying the type of plastic being used is essential when taking the correct next steps in recycling it. Some plastics simply cannot be recycled, but recycling as much plastic waste as possible is crucial. See the table below for how to deal with each type of plastic.

2. Clinical Waste and Infection Risk

There are generally two types of plastic waste in healthcare: clinical and non-clinical. 

  • Clinical waste: PPE, drapes, used containers, vials, sharps, IV bags, incontinence products, etc.
  • Non-clinical waste: cutlery, general hygiene products, storage supplies, etc.

Any items that are contaminated with potentially infectious or harmful agents, such as chemicals and bodily fluids, must be treated as clinical waste and disposed of differently from non-clinical waste. This protects people, animals, and the environment from harm at all stages of the disposal process. 

The majority of clinical waste which is potentially infectious cannot be recycled because it needs to be incinerated for safety reasons in accordance with the government. Because of the nature of healthcare operations, a large amount of plastic waste produced is potentially infectious. For example, used blood sample vials, surgical gloves, and irrigation bottles. 

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How should plastic be recycled in healthcare?

The waste recycling policies may differ from organisation to organisation, but there should be clear processes for sorting and disposing of plastics separately to other waste streams where possible. Generally, the following steps should be taken.

  1. Is the item contaminated? If so, it should be disposed of in the relevant clinical waste stream.
  2. Is the plastic-type recyclable in your organisation? Check the resin ID code and manufacturer guidance against your organisation’s policies.

Find out which types of waste go into which bags and how they are disposed of in our blog. You can also find out how to dispose of yellow clinical waste bags.

SymbolResin TypeExampleRecycling Method
Polyethylene Terephthalate
Bottles, vials.Recycled via most normal plastic waste recycling streams in the UK.
Irrigation bottles, chemical containers, piping.Recycle with other #2 types of plastic waste.
Polyvinyl Chloride
Oxygen masks, catheters, blister packaging, cannulae, surgical gloves, mattress covers.Recycle with other #3 types of plastic waste. However, some #3 plastics cannot be recycled, so check the manufacturer's guidance.

Ampoules, tubing, packaging films, lids.Recycle with other #4 types of plastic waste. However, some #4 plastics cannot be recycled, so check the manufacturer's guidance.
Sterilisation wrap, basins, trays, pitchers.Recycle with other #5 types of plastic waste.
Petri dishes, culture trays, test tubes, disposable catering wares.Recycle with other #6 types of plastic waste. However, some #6 plastics cannot be recycled, so check the manufacturer's guidance.
Other Plastics
Protecting eyewear, dialysis machines, oxygenators.These items may contain a mix of plastic and other materials. Check the manufacturer's guidance on how to recycle them.

Proactive Steps to Reduce Plastic Waste

Recycling isn’t the only answer to reducing plastic production in businesses. We also need to take preemptive steps to ensure we make responsible choices and continue introducing sustainable solutions to plastic into the healthcare supply chain.

Sometimes reducing plastic waste in hospitals can be as simple as opting for fewer single-use supplies in the hospital cafeteria and general cleaning procedures.

When it comes to first aid, wound dressing, and examination, correct storage of hospital supplies is very important. Supplies are commonly wrapped in plastic to keep them clean or sterile and in good condition, but what if we could intercept this step with recyclable non-plastic alternatives?

A recyclable first aid kit like the one made by Steroplast is the first of its kind—a 100% recycled materials box filled with an HSE first aid kit inside made with significantly reduced plastic. Instead of plastic wrappings, Steroplast uses medical-grade paper, which withstands sterilisation to keep contents sterile and protected.

Learn all about the eco first aid kit and how it was made to help businesses meet sustainability KPIs and contribute to a reduction in plastic use. 

Browse our knowledge hub for more resources on how to take safe steps towards sustainability in first aid.

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Eco-Friendly First Aid Range

Discover our selection of high-quality, eco-friendly first aid products. Packaged thoughtfully in recycled materials and designed with minimal plastic use.

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