This op-ed was published by Medical Plastics News.
By Ole Grøndahl Hansen, Project Manager, PVCMed Alliance.
Though plastic gets a lot of negative attention these days, even the most hardcore anti-plastic crusaders agree that a modern healthcare system is inconceivable without plastics. No one has so far argued for plastic-free hospitals and a reintroduction of technically inferior medical devices of glass, rubber and metal that were used in the past.
Yet the undisputed success of safe and affordable single-use medical devices should not lead us to the conclusion that our industry does not need to minimise the environmental impacts of our products. We can look to South Africa for inspiration – a place where environmental responsibility goes hand in hand with education and social and economic development.
In Johannesburg, South Africa, a recycling project is currently underway, which is a model example of how an immediate challenge regarding plastic and waste management can actually contribute to sustainable development. Here, a partnership of hospitals, schools, municipal authorities, non-governmental organisations and the plastics industry has developed a groundbreaking program in which used medical equipment in hospitals is revitalised in the form of footwear for school children.
The project also demonstrates how partnerships can help create start-ups in the recycling sector. Additionally, recycling plastic offers a range of benefits such as improving the conditions for children in education, creating jobs, reducing climate impact and thus ensuring a green transition.
A number of key sustainable development goals are envisaged in the project. As well as being a partnership (SDG 17), the project helps to achieve goal 4 on education, goal 8 on economic growth and goal 12 on responsible consumption and production. We can thus be inspired by the South African example of plastic and sustainable development.
At the recent VinylPlus Sustainability Forum in Prague, I ran into Delanie Bezuidenhout of South Africa’s medical company Adcock Ingram. “In South Africa, we see some very special socio-economic circumstances compared to other parts of the world,” she told me. “As we considered which products we would develop from the medical waste, we looked at the community and noticed that about 5 million children in South Africa live in deep poverty. Even basic necessities such as shoes are in short supply, which means that children cannot attend school, as school uniforms are required.”
“We thus found a product made exclusively of PolyVinyl Chloride (PVC), namely a school shoe. Our mission is to ensure that no children in South Africa should be absent from school due to a lack of footwear. Only 20 infusion containers are needed to produce a pair of shoes, so we are very prepared to collect as much as possible from the hospitals.”
Bezuidenhout emphasised that the shoes are recycled again and again: “The great thing about the shoes is that because they consist entirely of PVC, they are 100% recyclable. When the shoes get too small for the kids, they hand them over for recycling and then get a new pair of appropriate size. This illustrates the circular community where several players in the value chain – from the international down to the local – collaborate and unite around recycling.”
But what are the benefits if we decide to recycle medical devices in a more extensive way? The first thing that comes into the minds of people if you discuss this option is the contamination risk. The latest research has however shown that only a tiny fraction (around 3%) of the medical device is actually infectious e.g. an oxygen mask that has been used for only a few seconds on a patient who has broken their leg is no more risky to collect than a plastic bottle a patient has drank from and returned to the deposit system.
Therefore, there is a great potential in recycling high-quality plastic medical equipment that can be used to make a wealth of socially beneficial products. The benefits for the climate are clear – every time 1 kg of PVC is recycled. the climate is saved for 2 kg of carbon dioxide. For a recycling company, hospital plastic is also in great demand, since in addition to having a high-quality material, a secure supply is ensured. This is because a hospital knows exactly how much equipment is used per bed, which makes it possible to calculate the waste amounts.
The so-called recyclate can be used to produce many different products, but a hurdle will be to develop creative end products. For example, in order to motivate the South African nurses who are responsible for the sorting and collecting of used medical equipment, it has been crucial that the plastic waste they collect will be used for something sensible, which it clearly does in this case.
The South African project shows us how through forming partnerships for plastic recycling we can create socially beneficial products and jobs whilst contributing to carbon dioxide reduction.