CWC Fact Sheet


Northwest Medical Plastics Recycling Project

In increasing numbers, hospitals across the Northwest are recognizing the need to reduce all types of waste to reduce costly collection and disposal fees. Perhaps nowhere in the hospital environment is this need greater than in controlling the spiraling costs of medical "red bag" wastes.

This fact sheet describes the work being done by a pacific northwest consortium, facilitated by the Clean Washington Center (CWC), to develop cost-effective, comprehensive medical waste management programs. The consortium is a diverse group of hospitals, medical product manufacturers, local and state public agencies, and recycled materials processors and brokers.

Getting Started - The Northwest Medical Plastics Project

In 1993, the City of Olympia, Washington discovered that approximately 3-5% of the waste entering their landfill was generated by just one local hospital. Plastic waste accounted for over 40% (by volume) of the hospital's waste stream. In response, the City's recycling coordinator called on the Clean Washington Center to identify viable markets for the plastic materials being landfilled. The CWC evaluated the plastic waste stream and identified polypropylene materials as the most likely to find consistent, viable end-markets to support collection and processing.

Recognizing that efforts to reduce polypropylene waste at Olympia's hospital would have applicability to hospitals throughout the region, the CWC assembled a consortium of key players to evaluate and implement a model for an effective medical plastic recycling program. The consortium included three northwest hospitals, two medical product manufacturers, the Clean Washington Center, the City of Olympia, the American Plastics Council, All-Star Recycling (a local plastics recycler), and Recycled Plastics Marketing (a local materials broker).

The consortium focused on designing and implementing plastic waste programs to complement existing in-hospital waste reduction and recycling programs. The partnership laid the groundwork for plastics collection, in-service training, materials separation and sorting methods and equipment, storage, management support, and monitoring and tracking systems.

Since the initiation of the project, over 50 hospitals have participated in a medical plastics recycling program throughout the Northwest. The project is an example of how diverse players in a distribution network, both public and private, can cooperate to develop an economical system for reclaiming and producing marketable products made from recycled materials.

Lessons Learned - An Evolving Framework

The Northwest Medical Plastics Project demonstrated the efficacy of recycling medical wastes in addition to more typical recyclables. The project also revealed important lessons for expanding recycling in the hospital environment.

1. Emphasis should be on Integrated Total Waste Management. Effectively managing medical recyclables from hospitals, as elsewhere, will depend on favorable market economics. Favorable economics are required to invest hospital management to support a total waste management concept. Collection of medical plastics alone is hard to justify in the face of uncertain end-uses. A total waste management program will allow hospitals to reclaim high-value materials, such as surgical instruments, plastics, and paper, in the same context as lower value materials - adding to overall economic viability.
2. Building partnerships early among regional hospitals will ensure critical volume and momentum for market viability. Hospital consortiums that implement programs to collect and process materials consistently across a group of hospitals will enhance material quality and quantity - essential for remanufacturing with recycled materials.
3. Building partnerships early with the entire distribution system is essential for a successful program. Partnerships must include all organizations that will be involved in waste management solutions. Whether recycling plastic irrigation bottles or unused suture packets, a hospital consortium must establish a working, cooperative network to ensure cost-effective collection, transportation (such as medical product back-hauling), processing, remanufacture, and where possible, reuse.
4. Top-down management support for a total waste management effort must be secure. A total waste management effort requires resources, staff commitment, on-going education, and physical space (often competing with revenue generating equipment). Clear management direction, measurement, and support will vest waste reduction programs with significant credibility.
5. The benefits of an integrated total waste management system have the potential to go well beyond avoided disposal costs. Recovered materials are able to be remanufactured into other medical and medical-related products. This can reduce product costs, particularly if agreements are reached between manufacturers, distributors and hospital supply purchasers. Unused medical products that are re-sterilized and resold to hospitals also have the potential for significant cost savings.

The Future - Total Hospital Waste Management Programs

Moving from a model plastics collection effort to an integrated waste reduction and recycling program takes significant effort. In order to replicate the program nationally, the CWC is working with the pacific northwest consortium to address several challenges. These include:

1. Establishing the logistics and contracts for the collection/distribution system involving medical product companies, recycling/recovery businesses, intermediate material processors, manufacturers, medical supply distributors, and hospitals.
2. Developing education and training programs that can be tailored to individual hospitals, while still contributing consistency to regional hospital networks.
3. Prioritizing those hospital operations that have the potential to produce the highest-value materials. Surgery suites, which produce about 40% of a hospital's waste stream, will receive much of the attention. Identifying other hospital areas that could also contribute higher-value materials is ongoing.
4. Working with hospitals to develop accounting mechanisms that identify waste reduction results. This will allow waste management programs to isolate areas of the hospital where disposal avoidance and recycled-content product purchases will make a significant efficiency difference.

What Can be Done Now? Regions with a high representation of hospitals should act now to lay the groundwork for an effective, regional total waste management program.

1. Hospitals should conduct comprehensive environmental audits of their facilities to identify current waste management practices, total waste streams, waste generating activities, problem wastes, "red bag" system use, and current mechanisms for dealing with wastes. Generating waste audit information now will enable a focused approach to developing vendor networks in the future.
2. Identify potential hospital and distribution partners and start an open dialogue to identify common problems and start to identify areas for cost sharing.

Fact Sheet Updated: April 1997