Recovery of plastics from clinical wastes

Despite all its woes, the recycling industries have a good record – it could be much better – of recovering material resources for reuse.

With correct processing, it matters not that drinks cans end up as a new car body shell, or vice versa, if an old iron bedstead is re-processed to bean cans or manhole covers, if beers bottles become cullet or plastic syringes are reformed to street furniture, picnic cutlery or children’s toys.

Re-processing, especially of plastics recovered from clinical waste streams, requires great care in first ensuring sterility, then cleaning, sorting and re-formulating at high temperature with additional processing to remove pigments and other unwanted additives and contaminants while additional raw materials are added to ensure a good mix.

But does it matter if plastics from clinical wastes are used in this way? We have discussed this several times previously on the Clinical Waste Discussion Forum. Clearly there is some concern, resurfacing again this time in China, the foundation being one of public concern and general sensibility, aesthetic reasons, rather than any concern based upon a sound scientific reasoning.

In the UK, Blenkharn Environmental has dealt with one assessment of this kind, though perhaps somewhat more complex in circumstances where concerns about residual DNA from hospital patients, for example from blood left in a syringe was first sterilised then recovered as plastic waste for recycling into street furniture. And what would happen when some a thug broke off a leg from that plastic park bench to club a passer-by to a violent death, with the police later accusing some innocent person of this mortal crime solely because their DNA was found on the murder weapon?

Implausible? Well, of course it is. Though quite impossible to answer with absolute certainty – the tests necessary would cost an incredible sum – the possibility is so remote that the likelihood is infinitesimally small and should reasonably be discounted.

But in China, Vietnam and elsewhere, the recovery of plastics for re-use may take a faster route to reprocessing. Sterilisation may be omitted; even washing to remove traces of blood, pus, urine whatever might be done away with in the drive for a quick profit. At such times, the sensibilities of others become real and quite understandable. Aesthetic objections come to the fore, and casts a shadow over those who approach plastics recovery in an efficient and properly regulated way. That is a great shame.


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