Headlines about plastic pollution are hard to miss these days. But during Medica, the world’s largest medical trade fair, it’s time to take step back and acknowledge the role plastic plays in healthcare.
Plastic is in on the agenda as never before. The material is centre of attention in parliaments and media, and lately the European Union has proposed legislation toward single-use plastics. But let’s take a step back and look at how important plastic is for our daily lives. When you are thirsty, plastic pipes provide clean water and help take the waste water away. The smartphone you might be reading this on could not exist without plastic, nor could the internet function without plastic cables. In addition, the power that comes out of the outlet might be renewable. Here PVC foam in wind turbine rotor blades for help generate clean energy.
Indeed, plastic is a prerequisite for our high-tech lives. But there is one place where plastic is truly life-saving: in healthcare. From medical devices such as blood bags over hospital interiors to advanced diagnostic equipment, plastic is everywhere. One of the most used plastic materials in healthcare is polyvinyl chloride, also known as PVC or vinyl. Since the first PVC blood bags were introduced during the Korean War in the 1950s, the polymer has become the most popular material for single-use medical devices due to a combination of unique technical properties and low cost. Currently, about 40% of all disposable medical devices are made from PVC. In healthcare facilities flooring, ceiling and wall coverings are also often made from PVC, as is hidden infrastructure such as pipes and cables. With a growing demand for quality healthcare around the world, PVC consumption for medical uses and buildings is set to increase in the coming years.
Though PVC remains the polymer of choice in healthcare, the world is far from standing still when it comes to improve the environmental profile of the material. Since 2000 VinylPlus®, which is the European PVC industry’s Voluntary Commitment to sustainable development, has pushed the industry forward toward new sustainability goals. One of the most important achievements is recycling of around 640,000 tonnes of PVC per year. Recycling is not only limited to building applications where most of the PVC is used. In the UK, the VinylPlus-supported RecoMed scheme collects PVC medical devices such as oxygen masks and tubing for recycling. The UK scheme is inspired by the successful hospital recycling programme in Australia and New Zealand where over 140 hospitals are involved in collection and recycling of PVC medical devices.
When it comes to plasticisers, innovation has led to the development of new phthalate-free plasticisers, four of which have recently been taken up by the European Pharmacopoeia that sets the standards for medical products in Europe and beyond. With the new plasticisers in the Pharmacopeia, patients and healthcare professionals can continue to benefit from PVC’s unique properties while avoiding phthalates of concern.