Any plastic can be made naturally
Can medicine do without plastic?
“Even today, for a variety of reasons, certain types of plastic are being disposed of instead of being recycled beforehand,” said Kim Holmes, Vice President Sustainability at the Plastics Industry Association.
"When caring for patients, there are materials and objects that do not come into contact with the patient at all, which means that there is no biological hazard and that could be recycled," she adds, referring to packaging and storage containers, for example.
Hospitals in the US that try to separate their waste for recycling often have a hard time finding a recycling partner, says Holmes, because they often don't produce enough recyclable waste to make the collaboration lucrative. The whole thing is more efficient if the waste is collected together from different locations. The Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council offers clinics a guide when they want to join the recycling network.
The disgust factor
One of the most common sources of waste from surgery in the United States is the polypropylene wipes used to cover sterile instruments. They are removed and thrown away before the operation. According to Howard, this removes the "disgusting factor", but also creates a small pile of rubbish.
“It's like Christmas Eve when there's a pile of wrapping paper on the floor,” she says. "That's that drape in the operating room every day."
She reports that some clinics have started attempts to replace the disposable wipes with reusable sterilization containers that can be cleaned as well as the instruments that are transported in them.
Another important utensil in medical facilities are the sterilization bags: small bags that keep sterile instruments sterile.
A more sustainable variant was developed by the dental brothers David and James Stoddard, who wanted to make sure that their instruments were free of pathogens. This resulted in small bags made of tightly woven material in which they kept their sterilized dental instruments. They founded their company EnviroPouch in 1993 and were bought by Barbara Knight in 2001.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has strict guidelines for cleaning medical instruments, and the pouches in which they are kept must be registered with the FDA, which is the case with EnviroPouch.
Knight explains that their product is much more efficient than the plastic bags because it is much more resistant to sharp instruments. Each bag saves the use of around 200 single-use bags.
"The tissue structure makes life difficult for sharp instruments [such as a scalpel]," she says, referring to the thin coating in the plastic bags.
Knight states that the dentists who developed the pouch were inspired by the story of Kimberly Ann Bergalis, a woman who died in 1991. She was one of six American patients who were infected with HIV while visiting the dentist.
Gary Cohen, president of Practice Greenhealth and the non-profit organization Health Care Without Harm, attributes the industry's broad push towards single-use plastics to this fear of the spread of HIV.
"It was one of the drivers behind the increased use of single-use products and overflowing packaging in healthcare because everyone was so concerned about the spread," says Cohen of the paranoia during the AIDS crisis. "It was an overreaction."
Not only is plastic used widely, Cohen adds, certain types such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) can even contain toxic substances. A 2016 study in the US found that young patients exposed to DEHP - a common plasticizer in PVC - during intensive care care showed signs of neurocognitive impairment later in life.
However, on its website, the Plastics Industry Association continues to proclaim that PVC is an efficient material because of its germ-resistant properties and easy disinfectability.
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