Numerous considerations surround the issue of sustainability in terms of healthcare and medical device packaging, including the need for sterilized products, specialized waste streams, and rigorous regulatory requirements. Within this complex environment, however, there is a series of initiatives involving packaging design, reassessing material selection, innovative recovery methods, and emerging recycling technologies that aim to increase the circularity of healthcare plastics.
Thermoforms are widely used in healthcare settings, from medical device protection to pharmaceutical product preservation. For example, Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol (PETG) is a polymer used extensively in healthcare packaging. PETG plays an essential, and irreplaceable role in the protection of sensitive sterile medical devices. Nevertheless, many hospitals and healthcare service providers (HSPs) lack the infrastructure to efficiently recycle PETG and other types of packaging, like rigid sterile barrier thermoformed trays commonly made of clear PET. Nearly all healthcare plastic packaging is incinerated or disposed of in landfills — despite the fact that most of these polymers are technically feasible to recycle, and only about 15% of packaging waste from healthcare facilities is considered hazardous.1
Accelerating progress toward sustainability
The need to improve end-of-life outcomes and circularity for healthcare plastics is increasingly urgent, and a confluence of forces is inspiring action. The buying power of group purchasing organizations (GPOs) and their environmentally preferred procurement (EPP) initiatives are emphasizing the importance of sustainability factors in purchasing decisions. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as Practice Greenhealth, are providing a framework and resources for the sector to leverage sustainability initiatives. Reduced and zero waste commitments are emerging at the healthcare facility level, which has ramifications on packaging design and end-of-life considerations. Additionally, legislative policy, regulation, investor focus, and evolving consumer demands are accelerating change.
Stakeholders all along the healthcare value chain are collaborating to identify solutions that will enhance circularity. For instance, the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC) is a technical consortium working in the US and Europe to increase plastic recycling efforts in clinical settings. They developed the Hospicycle toolkit for hospitals, as well as the Design Guidance for Healthcare Plastics Recycling resource to optimize package design for recycling. Source collection, volume aggregation, sortation logistics, and contamination risk management will all be key to unlocking the potential of recycled healthcare plastics. Closed-loop recycling, known as “take back” programs, can also provide a circular option for specific applications and circumstances.
At the same time, recycling technology is progressing at a rapid pace. Advanced recycling can enable a more circular future for healthcare plastics by providing solutions for hard-to-recycle materials. Purification, depolymerization, and conversion are techniques to break down a polymer to the molecular level and convert it into virgin-quality material for use in new products.2 Mass balance systems support advanced recycling technologies as a chain-of-custody protocol that tracks recycled content through manufacturing processes. Although it’s not possible to trace the exact recycled molecules, recycled plastic in manufacturing is recorded and balanced with certified recycled content in end products.
Incorporating a mass balance approach enables organizations to integrate sustainable raw materials, like those derived from advanced recycling processes, seamlessly into existing processes and assets. Specifically, the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) PLUS is a globally recognized certification of compliance with robust environmental, social and traceability requirements. ISCC Plus and other mass balance systems are key to rapidly scaling sustainable material integration and credibly driving circularity.
Simplifying complexity in medical device packaging
Medical device manufacturers can re-engineer packaging to be more sustainable without sacrificing quality or efficiency. Down-gauging and right-sizing, when pursued holistically, can help reduce weight and material usage in packaging, thereby increasing transport and other downstream efficiencies that may reduce an organization’s environmental impact.
Merit Medical Systems, Inc., a manufacturer of single-use medical devices for interventional and diagnostic procedures, provides an excellent example. Merit was seeking a solution to eliminate shipping damage, decrease material waste, and reduce packaging costs.3 High impact polystyrene (HIPS) packaging is commonly used for shipping trays, yet it is a rigid and unforgiving material. Plastic Ingenuity helped Merit source a product capable of delivering the protection their delicate medical device required. Eastalite co-polyester, a novel foamed PETG material, provides lower density than traditional rigid materials, greater abrasion resistance, and improved shock absorption and impact strength.
After selecting the material, Plastic Ingenuity’s engineers designed a bulk universal tray capable of accommodating multiple devices within the product line while preventing device vibration and movement. Moreover, the redesign exceeded all functional, economic, and environmental goals. This first-to-market Eastalite application offers improved product protection and is robust enough for reuse at least four times. Plastic Ingenuity also optimized cube utilization 133%, accommodating 1,400 devices per pallet as compared to the initial 600 devices per pallet. Increased efficiencies reduced transatlantic freight costs 57% and minimized packaging material costs by 52%.3
Transformations for a circular future
As the healthcare industry continues to place greater emphasis on sustainability, medical device manufacturers will be expected to adapt and evolve accordingly. Plastic packaging is integral to this sector and multiple advancements are enabling the development of innovative packaging solutions. It is increasingly possible to improve packaging efficiencies in performance, cost, and sustainability, while also delivering on patient safety. Through investments, partnerships, and common goals, the healthcare packaging industry is proactively transitioning to a circular economy that will help secure a future for generations to come.
About the author:
Zach Muscato is the corporate sustainability manager for Plastic Ingenuity, a leading custom thermoformer based in Madison, WI, where he is responsible for helping packaging professionals realize their sustainability goals. Zach has dedicated his 20-year career to the thermoformed packaging industry with roles ranging from product development to commercial sales.
- Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council, Hospital Waste Characterization
- Closed Loop Partners, Transitioning to a Circular System for Plastics: Assessing Molecular Recycling Technologies in the United States and Canada, 2021
- Plastic Ingenuity, Customer Story: Healthcare Packaging Material Innovation