Is There a Solution to Plastics in the Medical Industry?

Will working toward sustainability compromise our safety?
November 10, 2020 / Jenny Lott

Innovation in the medical field has done a lot of good for the world, but with that good comes new challenges previously unheard of. The digitization of medical records has created a need for proper data destruction through a variety of methods, creating a relationship between the medical and ITAD industries. In a similar vein, technological advances have required the increased use of plastics—some reusable, some single-use. Reusable hospital equipment such as monitors are partially or entirely made up of plastic. Single-use plastics found in hospitals include items such as syringes, disposable covers for items like thermometers or otoscopes, and personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks.

Plastics in the medical industry have helped cut costs and improve sanitary conditions in many areas. However, with current environmental activism focusing its efforts on reducing plastic waste, there are important questions to address. How do we reduce plastic waste while maintaining the sanitary conditions single-use plastics can provide? Will replacing single-use plastics in the medical field with reusable alternatives harm the environment more?

There aren’t many clear answers; the current COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the complexity of the issue. For example, face masks, which help reduce transmission risk, can be made out of reusable cotton and washed, but the material used for disposable masks is more effective at risk reduction. At the same time, washing and properly sanitizing an item uses a lot of energy and releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while often requiring a significant quantity of water. Also, certain devices such as duodenoscopes are notoriously difficult to clean for reuse.

So what is the solution? Although such efforts have taken a backseat to the more pressing health crisis, there is an increased effort to create biodegradable PPE with the same efficacy as our current single-use equipment. Other reusable medical equipment such as monitors are recyclable through ITAD services. And though healthcare workers still require the use of disposable PPE, reusable items such as cloth masks work just fine for the general public.

The healthcare industry—and its current need for single-use plastics—highlights the complexity of the relationship between plastics consumption, the environment, and the health and safety of individuals. It indicates that there is a much bigger conversation to be had about how to effectively manage and balance environmental consequences of the industry. It’s an unsatisfying conclusion, but after the crisis is over, we may be able to find a sufficient solution.