Medical Products Struggle to Get "Green"

June 5, 2003

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Designing medical products for recyclability is tough. And recapturing medical equipment for recycling is even trickier. Learn how the industry is managing the journey toward "green":

The eco-friendliness drive is accelerating in the medical products industry, but the road to "green" is marked with many potholes. For starters, increased use of disposable products has exacerbated hospital waste. And designing medical products to be easily disassembled and recycled continues to be confounding because many medical devices are required to be extra-tough—able to endure falls and harsh sterilization. But many manufacturers, vendors and suppliers are facing such obstacles head-on.

"Two years ago you couldn't get group purchasing organizations for hospitals to talk about environmentally preferable purchasing," says Laura Brannen, co-director for Hospitals for a Healthy Environment (H2E), "but now many champion the cause." For instance, Baxter Healthcare of Illinois, one of the largest medical products manufacturers, together with group purchaser Premier Inc. and Catholic Health Care West, both of California, is trying to create an advisory group that will delve into recycling and waste-reduction issues, such as decreasing medical packaging and recycling single-use plastics.

And the H2E program is attacking the environmental problem from many fronts. "H2E hopes to provide the framework and initiate discussions on how the industry can create processes and infrastructure that develop take-back programs, or products and packaging that are stackable and returnable," says Brannen. "H2E is also pursuing partnerships between manufacturers and distributors to establish methods that let distributors back-haul plastics to the manufacturer or plastic recyclers. The group's ultimate goal is reaching medical device designers so products have minimal environmental impact."

What a Waste

Hospitals produce over 6,600 tons of waste per day, estimates H2E, at least 15% more than 10 years ago due to the proliferation of disposable products. And this estimate does not even take into account the output of private medical and dental clinics, veterinarians, long-term care, laboratories and independent blood banks.

Accounting for 75-80% of a healthcare facility's waste, solid waste is the most sizeable portion, says H2E, encompassing paper, metal, glass and plastics. Chlorinated materials, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), are especially problematic because incinerating waste with chlorinated content produces dioxins, which can cause cancer and hormonal defects. In fact, burning medical waste with chlorinated materials is the third biggest source of dioxins in the environment, says Health Care Without Harm (HCWH). And globally, waste incinerators account for 69% of dioxins, estimates HCWH.

PVC is found in a wide range of medical products, from disposable intravenous (IV) bags and tubing to bedpans and notebook binders. Additionally, it's common in durable medical products, where it is particularly difficult to reduce because of a dearth of PVC-labeling and PVC-free devices. "A first step in reducing PVC use in these applications would be to require vendors to disclose the PVC content in their products," says Brannen. "Medical products and their packaging are often not labeled with their contents."

Currently, there is no U.S. industry standard that calls for the labeling of injection molded parts, says Chris Belisle, senior project engineer for injection molder Phillips Plastics Corp. of Wisconsin. However, several internationally owned medical OEMS are preparing for recycling mandates that may be enforced in the future. For example, Datex-Ohmeda Inc. of Finland, a supplier of anesthesia equipment, denotes the resin acronym on every injection molded part.

Designing for Disassembly

An even more fundamental approach to the "green" issue is designing medical products for easy dismantling and recycling—not an easy feat for many medical devices. "Common methods for making disassembly easier such as snap fits, may work well for some products, but they may not be appropriate for use in certain medical applications," says Belisle. Unlike other products, many medical devices are required to pass demanding drop tests and to withstand severe sterilization that could damage fragile internal electronic circuits. In some cases, designing for recyclability could even negatively impact medical product design and increase production costs.

Nonetheless, some companies are incorporating recyclability concerns in product development. Says Pedro Torres, a supply manager for Datex-Ohmeda's manufacturing plant in Wisconsin, "Taking time to review each step in a development process may at first appear to slow it down, but we found that strategic cradle-to-grave program reviews improve current products and provide cost-saving initiatives for future programs."

Design engineers can take certain measures to promote a product's future recyclability. According to Jack Pape, a VP with rotational molding company, Meese Orbitron Dunne Co., New Jersey, engineers can reduce the priciest part of disassembly—labor—by incorporating simple hinges. Furthermore, he recommends specifying recyclable materials, such as linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), as well as materials that are commonly used and likely to remain in wide circulation.

Engineers should also refrain from modifying the material through additives, textures and foaming agents because this drives up the cost of recycling and diminishes the recycled material's potential market and value, Pape says. Moreover, he advises engineers to consider the effect of weathering—dirt, debris, and wear and tear—on recyclability. Finally, he tells engineers to steer clear of adhesive labels and inks whenever possible because they are difficult and expensive to remove.

Other Hurdles

Pape's company already designs many products for future recyclability, but he acknowledges that it's only a start. "Just because a product can be recycled doesn't mean it will be economically viable to do so when the product is ready to enter the waste stream," he explains. "Nor is there any guarantee there will be a market for the recycled material."

And that's not all design engineers must take into account. Another issue is how the price of the recycled material will match up against that of the virgin material at the product's anticipated date of obsolescence or disposal. "Further clouding the forecast," he notes, "are the possibilities that new materials may be developed after manufacturing that render recycled material useless. And environmental regulations may be enacted after manufacturing that could eliminate use of the material or increase the cost to use it."

"After considering these possibilities, design engineers must address their greatest and most costly challenge: how the product will be removed from the waste stream and transferred into the recycling stream, assuming there's a market for the material," continues Pape. He points out that there is currently no government-sponsored collection program for obsolete medical equipment. "Who will bear the responsibility for tagging a given product for recycling at the end of its useful life and who will assume the cost of shipping it to a recycling operation that can accommodate the given material?" he asks.

Long Road Ahead

Indeed, medical product manufacturers, vendors and suppliers have their work cut out for them. But through more conscientious purchasing, eco-friendly design and established recycling programs, they can make steady progress in their long journey toward a "green" medical products industry.

Source: Think "RECYCLE" for Medical Products
Jean M. Hoffman
Medical Design News
http://www.medicaldesignnews.com/full_story.php?WID=5441

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