From hospital waste to more sustainable medical technology
8/3/2023 Sustainability News

From hospital waste to more sustainable medical technology

Every year, German hospitals generate several million tonnes of waste in the form of used protective masks, test utensils, syringes, gloves or surgical gowns. The majority of these disposable items are incinerated. A team of researchers at the Fraunhofer IWU does not want to put up with this: In its white paper "ReMed", it proposes solutions that help to increase the recycling rate of plastic products in the healthcare sector step by step without burdening nursing staff with additional tasks.

Granules made out of separated plastic waste The granule for the production of high-quality new plastics is obtained from separate plastic waste.
Many disposable products are used for in-patient and out-patient treatments, which cause a considerable and increasing amount of waste. The health sector also has the target of being climate-neutral by the middle of the century and having closed material cycles.

The researchers at Fraunhofer IWU in Dresden are convinced that this goal can be achieved. In the new white paper "ReMed" (Recycling for Sustainable Medical Technology), they present strategies for increasing the recycling share of plastics from medical devices in the short, medium, and long term. The focus is on waste in hospitals; an important basis for the paper are the results of a survey in which 27 Saxon hospitals participated.

According to the researchers, successful strategies must provide answers to key questions about the composition of the waste, the participants within the process chain, regulations, material flows, and processing options for recycled materials. The team finally subjected its proposals on the collection, separation, processing, recovery, and recycling of plastic waste to a "reality check" by experts from the Carl Gustav Carus University Hospital at the Technical University of Dresden. After all, the sustainable handling of disposable medical products must not take up a lot of space in the day-to-day running of a hospital, nor should it lead to any significant extra work.

Examples of improvements that can be implemented in the short and medium term

Uncertainty in the sorting of waste often leads to errors in classification; plastics that are actually harmless are thus withdrawn from the recycling cycle and incinerated "as a precaution". A remedy could be a uniform, simplified, and cross-institutional system for the labelling of waste containers. Colours or comprehensible symbols would make it easier to choose the right container.

For a lower carbon footprint, the admixture of bio-based plastics should be considered more strongly in the processing of mixed recyclates, the team underlines. Because they are derived from starch and sugar-containing plants, bioplastic compounds are considered a carbon sink - they hardly release any fossil carbon when incinerated. Moreover, if materials from one group of plastics are collected separately, fewer mixed recyclates are produced, which facilitates the production of new, high-quality plastics. To do this, all that would be needed initially is to set up another waste bin in the clinics.

Long-term improvements require greater stamina

An intermediate goal on the way to a closed material cycle within the medical sector should be to make the recycled material from used goods available to other industries that are less regulated.

Returning used plastics to the material cycle is also possible by means of feedstock (chemical) recycling processes. In this process, the plastic is broken down into its individual components. However, a prerequisite for the further processing of such materials into medical devices is renewed approval. Facilitating this in the future is an important step in the direction of closed material cycles.
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