There is much chatter at present, and many glossy advertisements backed up with frothy press releases, to describe the work of a consortium of major medical device manufacturers who promise to explore the development of more sustainable healthcare products, less wasteful packaging, and an increase in plastics for medical use.
The companies involved will work to identify barriers to the recycling of plastics and find targeted solutions throughout the medical products supply chain. That is of particular importance to the disposal sector since, once rendered safe the resulting floc has substantially more value if recovered plastics are of a single grade.
Quite how recyclate values might increase if recovered plastics are 80% rather than 20% pure is hard to see – it is still not likely to be fully segregated to a single product or grade – but the improvement is likely to be of value. It should also provide a stimulus to technical developments in waste processing and post-treatment separation technologies that might produce a ‘cleaner’ recyclate. There will also be some justification for ever better source segregation though it is difficult to see quite how this will work in the healthcare environment, or indeed for those treating wastes in inevitably smaller lots.
Plans to reduce unnecessary packaging are also welcome, and may have a greater impact. For medical products, product integrity is absolutely crucial. The product, a catheter or dressing or syringe, must be undamaged and sterile, justifying several layers of general and specialist packaging. Reduction in this packaging, perhaps through the use of newer materials, or simple redesign to provide dual-use components – perhaps an outer wrapping shell that doubles as a sterile tray in place of a separate sterile towel – can have a substantial and very positive effect.
Ultimately, this is good news for everyone. Though it supports potentially wasteful non-burn treatment for the majority of clinical wastes – assuming artificial regulatory barriers are removed or relaxed – we must now question whether the currently available ATT proceses are really the end of the line? Is there room for improvment, or perhaps new and novel technologies that support better downstream materials recovery?
And we must question also the need for such harsh initial treatments that presently make recovery and recycling – from excessively heater and finely shredded floc – that little bit more difficult. Since the risk of infection if the primary concern here, risk assessment is the to resolve this. The risk of infection if wastes are properly managed even if treated to the lowest STAATT standard, or less, is negligible if wastes are properly contained and managed with care. Subsequent processing treatments of recyclates will deliver an entirely safe product. Perhaps that is sufficient?