Medical plastics offer a range of benefits to medical professionals, their patients, and society. Those benefits, however, come at a high environmental price. This has led people to question whether the use of medical plastics is sustainable and, if not, what can be done about it.
Why medical plastics matter
Medical plastics have been around for so long that it can be hard to imagine what life was like without them. In simple terms, it involved more manual work for medical staff and far less hygiene. It was also not necessarily more environmentally friendly.
For example, effectively sterilizing medical equipment typically required hot water and/or chemicals. Getting water hot requires fuel, and in the old days that would (almost) certainly have meant fossil fuel. Chemicals bring their own environmental problems.
It also must be noted that manufacturing the medical products of yesteryear came at an environmental cost. While it is hard to make direct comparisons, manufacturing practices historically were often horrendous for the environment.
Since the arrival of COVID-19, one of the most visible uses of medical plastics has been in personal protective equipment (PPE) and other disposables. This is no longer restricted to medical environments. Protective visors and screens are now standard in various public buildings. Disposable masks and gloves are in wider use.
Even with the prospect of COVID-19 becoming endemic across the globe, PPE and disposables still will account for a high percentage of medical plastics. The reason for this is that plastic has a unique combination of sterility, robustness, lightness, and affordability.
Its surface is hostile to bacteria and can be made even more so using special coatings. At the same time, it can generally be handled without any special precautions (unlike glass). Also, it is usually priced very economically, unlike fiberglass and ceramics. Those same qualities also make plastic an attractive option for medical packaging and even for prosthetics.
In fact, the combination of plastics and new manufacturing techniques are opening all sorts of exciting options in the field of prosthetics. For example, additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing) could make it possible to create highly customized prosthetics quickly and easily.
The environmental issues of medical plastics
The use of medical plastics creates two major environmental problems — waste and carbon emissions. In principle, waste should not be an issue. The fact that it is demonstrates a clear failure on the part of key stakeholders. The issue of carbon emissions, however, is inherent in the use of plastics in their current form.
The vast majority of plastics are made from petroleum. This means that their production inevitably has a high carbon footprint. It also means that they can only be produced for as long as petroleum deposits last. It is not clear how long this will be. It is clear, however, that alternatives need to be found as soon as possible.
Four key steps for solving the problem
The issues with medical plastics can be resolved, but it will take stakeholder commitment and resources. Here are the four key steps that must be taken to ensure that the use of medical plastics is put on a sustainable footing.
Reduce the use of plastics
First, medical facilities should make a clear distinction between genuine medical plastics and general plastics used in a medical environment. The term medical plastics should only be used to refer to plastics used for medical purposes. Any plastics used for other applications, such as housekeeping and catering, should be identified as such.
General plastics are clear targets for reduction, if not elimination. For example, disposable plastic cutlery can be replaced by reusable cutlery or more sustainable alternatives such as bamboo. The use of genuine medical plastics should be kept to a minimum until more sustainable alternatives can be found.
Reuse and recycle medical plastics as much as possible
Whenever medical plastics can feasibly be sterilized and reused, medical facilities should do so. Whenever they cannot, they should be recycled, if possible.
Only if neither option is possible, should they be disposed of by other means. Whatever other method is used, there should be end-to-end transparency of the disposal process, so it is clear no plastic ends up in the water supply.
It is important to note that, at present, committing to recycling medical plastics may require direct financial subsidy. For example, medical facilities will either need to sort their plastic waste themselves or have it sorted for them. Either way, this will require resources. Over the long term, however, this initial investment should be outweighed by the environmental benefits.
Improve the efficiency of the medical plastics supply chain
There needs to be cradle-to-grave transparency in the medical plastics supply chain. This is the only way to be sure that medical plastics are produced in the most sustainable way currently possible. Likewise, it is the only way to ensure that medical plastic waste is being disposed of with the absolute minimum of environmental impact.
Support the development of sustainable medical plastics
Nobody knows exactly how long the world’s current supply of petroleum will last. In reality, this will probably depend on how long the world takes to reduce its usage for other purposes, especially transport.
Realistically, however, the fact that petroleum is clearly a finite resource is reason enough to look for alternatives. The high carbon footprint of petroleum-based products should lend extra urgency to the search.
As it currently stands, there are already plant-based alternatives to regular medical plastics. These are, however, still very niche. The main reason for this is that they are all still more expensive than petroleum-based plastics. In some cases, the difference can be significant, especially when petroleum prices are low.
This means that the development of sustainable medical plastics may need to be supported by direct or indirect subsidies, such as tax benefits. Again, the initial cost of this ultimately should be offset by the environmental benefits.
About the author
Nick Mills is the general manager at Ansini Ltd., which specializes in the manufacturing of vacuum-formed plastic components for the packaging, automotive, and aerospace industries.