This op-ed was published at PlasticsToday on 20 March 2020.
By Ole Grøndahl Hansen, Project Manager, PVCMed Alliance.
While COVID-19 understandably is capturing all of the attention right now, the circular economy concept is here to stay, and that is true in the healthcare sector, as well, which naturally has other priorities at the moment. For a long time healthcare has been kept out of circular economy discussions due to the fear of contamination, but successful pilot projects around the world show that it is indeed possible to recycle used medical devices without creating risk for patients, staff or recyclers. What all of those projects in more than 200 hospitals in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Guatemala and the United Kingdom have in common is that they collect only PVC-based medical devices. Why? Because PVC is the most widely used plastic in healthcare and can be recycled into a wide range of useful products.
With this in mind, I had mixed feelings when I read the recent dispatch from PLASTEC West, “Investigating Wasted Opportunities in Medical Plastics Recycling.” On the one hand, it is very positive to see the medical device industry taking action through the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council. On the other hand, I was quite surprised when I clicked on the link to HPRC’s design guide for recyclable products and packaging, where PVC is listed as a less-desirable design practice for healthcare plastics.
When it comes to packaging, it is a continuous discussion whether the PVC fraction is too miniscule for setting up recycling schemes targeting this polymer. For medical devices, the story is completely different.
Today, recycling is often hindered because the product is made from different, inseparable polymers; has non-plastic parts; or contains additives of concern. So what does design for recycling entail in a medical device context?
First of all, the medical device must be made from a single polymer. Even if the device has multiple layers in the same polymer, the quality of the recyclate will suffer. A device made from different polymers is even harder to recycle because of their different processing temperatures. Paradoxically, the trend toward so-called “PVC-free” medical devices often results in switching from a single-polymer design to a multi-layer device. Because of PVC’s unique properties — versatility in formulation, water-vapor impermeability, oxygen impermeability, and medical approvals throughout the world — PVC is the ideal choice for designing single-layer medical devices.
Ideally, a plastic product should be recycled again and again. Thus, it is important to choose a polymer that can be recycled several times without losing its technical properties or needing added virgin material. Several studies show that PVC can be recycled many times without losing its properties. In addition to the aforementioned versatility, where a medical device can be made from PVC in various softnesses, the plastic’s recyclability is unsurpassed in the polymer world.
To sum up, it makes little sense to list PVC as less desirable when the material fulfils the number one criteria that HPRC and everyone else in the plastics industry agree on — designing with mono-material whenever possible is preferred.