Sustainable Solutions to Plastic Use in Healthcare

Sustainable Solutions to Plastic Use in Healthcare
2 March 2023

Sustainable Solutions to Plastic Use in Healthcare

When it comes to tackling the rising issue of plastic waste, the healthcare sector faces a challenge. Plastic, particularly single-use plastic in healthcare, is cheap to produce, hygienic, highly versatile, and durable. It’s no wonder that plastic is used in medical packaging, storage, and equipment to make patient care easier and safer.

But plastic waste is making an irreversible impression on our planet, so what can be done to reduce the use of, and waste, plastics in healthcare? And what types of sustainable solutions are out there?

Sorting Medications

The Environmental Impact of Plastic Waste in Healthcare

Waste plastic in healthcare increases all the time, and serious steps are being taken to cut back on the amount of plastic that ends up being incinerated or going to landfill. According to Practice Greenhealth, 25% of all waste generated by hospitals is plastic, and that’s a high amount of plastic; estimated at 15 billion tonnes globally by the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council.

Looking a little closer to home, in Europe, the United Kingdom is the second largest producer of healthcare waste (second just to France), with the NHS generating 2,500 tonnes of plastic waste each day.

When one hysterectomy can produce up to 20 lbs of waste, of which the majority is plastic, we can see how important it is to cut back in any area possible and seek sustainable material replacements.

Steroplast Healthcare are committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2035 when we plan to have reduced our emissions by 100%.
See our complete Carbon Reduction Commitment here.

Why is Plastic so Useful in Healthcare?

While there’s a collective effort to reduce plastic use in healthcare, it can never be completely eliminated. There is always going to be a biohazard associated with healthcare where plastic offers the single-use, sterile, easily accessible solution in an industry where safety and infection mitigation are paramount.

Plastic allows for the creation of single-use items like disposable gloves, blister packaging, and IV tubes. Equipment is guaranteed sterile and readily available, and labour times are significantly reduced, whereas in earlier times, laborious sterilisation procedures would need to be followed that might not necessarily always be 100% effective.

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Ways to Reduce Plastic Waste in Healthcare

Benefit of plastic single-use items being completely sterile also comes with the caveat that they will be contaminated with potentially infectious bodily fluids, matter, or harmful chemicals in their use. So plastics used in healthcare can’t always be recycled even if they’re made from recyclable polymers. Any clinical waste must be incinerated to protect people and the environment from harm.

Suppliers and consumers know that the use of plastic in healthcare industries will never be at absolute zero. So we need to action strategies to reduce our plastic waste in healthcare to an absolute minimum while ensuring we optimise the reuptake of recycled plastic back into production.

Procure Supplies Responsibly

Single-use plastics in healthcare are a particular problem contributing to the increase in plastic waste generation. Selecting products intelligently to reduce plastic waste will significantly affect a more positive environmental impact.

For example, probe thermometers must be covered with a protective piece of plastic when used in hospitals. Imagine the number of plastic protectors thrown away daily in just one ward. Opting for a digital non-contact thermometer virtually eliminates this stream of plastic waste.

Blue wrap is another culprit of the plastic waste issue. This thin blue plastic sheeting temporarily covers surgical instruments in theatre before their use. But some hospitals are now trialling the use of sterilisable and reusable hard plastic covers. 

Another relatively easy action would be switching to medical-grade paper wrappers over plastic for things like sterile dressings and instruments. Medical grade paper is made to withstand sterilisation, meaning it won’t break down, and the sterile seal won’t be compromised. But it can be recycled in normal paper waste streams. 

Medical Grade paper is what we use in our sustainable first aid kit, and it’s one of the ways we managed to reduce plastic use in this kit significantly. The whole kit is contained in a box made from 100% recovered material (a compressed wood and recycled plastic composite).

Our eco-friendly first aid kit uses 94% less plastic packaging as a result, and we also offer refills with the same medical-grade paper packaging. This makes it an excellent alternative for businesses trying to reduce plastic waste and meet sustainability KPIs.

How sustainable is your first aid kit? Is it even possible to make an all-natural first aid kit? Find out in our blog. 

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

Find Opportunities to Reuse

When it comes to waste management and material conservation; we should aim to prevent waste production as much as possible. That means preventing materials from needing to be recycled at all if we can by reducing and reusing them when the opportunity arises.

stages to reducing waste production

Plastic in the healthcare industry isn’t always single-use, and there is a variety of plastic items that get sterilised or disinfected and reused over and over. Where possible, healthcare facilities are also beginning to swap out plastic like those used in catering for reusable, sterilisable alternatives.

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Recycle to the Maximum

Recycling in healthcare facilities like hospitals, GP surgeries, and care facilities can be carried out for select types of plastic, provided they are not contaminated. Anything contaminated with body fluids or chemicals is classed as clinical waste and needs to be incinerated. 

Recycling plastic means sorting it by its resin ID code, as different types of plastics cannot be broken down for the recycling process in the same way. However, more and more recycling programmes today accept mixed plastic waste in order to sort by resin ID code to carry out recycling processes. This makes it easier for businesses to attain ESG goals and recycle even more plastic.

Plastics that can be recycled:

1 – Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)

2 – High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

5 – Polypropylene (PP)

Plastics that can occasionally be recycled (check with the manufacturer and waste management team):

3 – Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

4 – Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

6 – Polystyrene (PS)

Can be Recycled Cannot be Recycled 
  • Items contaminated with chemicals. 
  • Items contaminated with body fluids.
  • Items that may be potentially infectious. 

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