Chinese police uncover medical waste ring recycling catheters into tableware

Police in China have arrested three men after an illegal operation recycling medical waste into children’s toys and tableware was uncovered.

A three-month investigation by the Municipal Public Security Bureau in Nanjing, in China’s eastern province of Jiangsu, began in August, when a team found tonnes of medical bags containing hazardous waste like intravenous tubes, urine collection bags, syringes and needles at a waste recycling plant, which police said was causing a ‘disgusting’ odour.

Chinese police uncover medical waste ring recycling catheters into tableware

The investigation found that since 2012 the operation had seen over 3,000 tonnes of medical waste worth about 40 million yuan (£4.5 million) bought from local hospitals. At the end of each month, the group would take away the hospitals’ plastic medical waste for between 800 and 1,200 yuan (£93-£139).

This hazardous waste was then sorted and resold to reprocessors in neighbouring provinces.

Another man involved in the operation was found to be purchasing similar waste, made of predominantly polypropylene and polyethylene waste streams, for up to 2,500 yuan (£290) per tonne, and then selling it on to plastic processing plants.

There, the waste would be turned into plastic pellets and sold to plastic manufacturers around the world. Police say that some of this recycled plastic was used to produce counterfeits of well-known brands of plastic toys and tableware.     

Products used in hospitals for medical procedures contain pathogenic microorganisms and other hazardous substances, meaning that they pose a threat to human health, as well as the natural environment by leaching into soil and waterways.

Chinese police uncover medical waste ring recycling catheters into tableware
The medical waste was sorted and granulated before being made into plastic products

In China, clinical and medical waste, as well as waste pharmaceuticals must be disinfected and disposed of by a permitted treatment company. Breaking the ‘Law of the People’s Republic of China on Solid Waste Pollution Prevention’ can result in a jail sentence of up to three years and a large fine.

The investigation into the medical waste ring is ongoing, but of the three men, two were released on bail, while the other one remains in custody.

What can be done to utilise medical waste?

Due to the one-use nature of medical products and the constant need for medical care, the treatment of hazardous clinical waste presents an interesting problem to a circular economy.

In the UK, the British Plastics Foundation estimates that the NHS spent approximately £87 million on waste over 2014-15, which equates to about 350,000 tonnes of waste, where 40 per cent of that figure is plastic.

Earlier this month, a project trialling a hospital-based machine producing sanitised, solid briquettes from sterilisation wrap was highlighted by the Welsh Government and the process’s creators as a revolutionary way to allow healthcare providers to deal with a significant proportion of medical waste while also opening up a revenue stream.

For the past year, St Woolos Hospital in Newport has been trialling the ‘Sterimelt’ machine, which heats the polypropylene wrap and reduces its volume by nearly 90 per cent, creating the brquiettes that can be sold to reprocessors and made into domestic or industrial products including buckets, stationary and ropes. The hospital currently uses around two tonnes of the wrap every month.

Another project, RecoMed, run by the BPF in conjunction with Axion Consulting, is investigating the possibility of recycling plastic items like IV bags, oxygen tubes and masks, similar to those used in the Nanjing operation, through a take-back scheme.

Across seven sites, the project has collected the items, preventing them from  being incinerated along with other clinical waste. Instead they are recycled into products for the horticultural industry like tree ties.

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