Medical waste recycling process could provide NHS with revenue source

One of Wales’ oldest hospitals is pioneering a new recycling process, which its developers say could ‘revolutionise how healthcare providers worldwide deal with medical waste wrap material’.

Sterilisation wrap is an integral part of the surgery process and is used in operating theatres across the world. It is used to package surgical instruments and equipment to protect them air-borne contaminants and bacteria, and is generally disposed of through incineration.

Medical waste recycling process could provide NHS with revenue sourceFor the past year, however, St Woolos Hospital in Newport has conducted extensive trials involving recycling the sterilisation wrap, in collaboration with waste management company Thermal Compaction Group and the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board (ABUHB).

The recycling process being trialled uses a ‘Sterimelt’ machine developed by Thermal Compaction Group, which produces sanitised, solid briquettes from the wrap's base element, polypropylene. The heating process reduces the volume of the polypropylene sheets to nearly ninety per cent of their original size.

The briquettes can then be manufactured into a variety of domestic or industrial products such buckets, stationery, ropes and chairs. Every hospital performing surgery generates this kind of waste on a daily basis.

The partnership says that prior to the development of this new recycling process, the wrap was going out as infectious clinical waste, providing a significant disposal cost when it went to incineration. By segregating out the polypropylene sheets, which previously were bagged and disposed of, the amount of clinical waste that needed to be removed from the medical department was reduced by fifty to seventy per cent.

Currently, two tonnes of sterilisation wrap from the Royal Gwent Hospital are recycled and diverted from the clinical waste stream per month. It is believed this will increase once the other hospital sites within the Health Board implement the new system.

Commenting on the new recycling process, Tim Hourahine from Thermal Compaction Group, said: "This is the first of its kind in the world. The trial has shown that we can take the wrap as waste and then re-introduce it to the supply chain. The Welsh NHS is taking a close interest in what we are doing and other hospitals are very keen to embrace the technology.

"There is so much interest because, at the moment, the majority of the waste wrap is either landfilled or incinerated which is exceptionally expensive. The recycling process removes that cost, plus it produces a workable product which will have a commercial value in the future."

Denise Cressey from the ABUHB added: "Not only is it good from an environmental point of view, it is sustainable and provides its own circular economy. It will save the NHS a lot of money, and it creates a revenue source which obviously benefits patient care."

Medical device take-back scheme success

The trial of the surgical wrap recycling process is one of a number of projects seeking to implement more circular systems within hospitals and the medical waste stream.

RecoMed, a take-back project run by the British Plastics Foundation (BPF) in conjunction with Axion Consulting and funded by VinylPlus, recycles items including IV solution bags, nasal cannulas, oxygen tubes, anaesthetic masks and oxygen masks.

The BPF announced in April that the scheme was operational in seven sites, and had recycled over 830 kilogrammes (kg) of PVC medical waste in a month.

By collecting these items, the scheme aims to help avoid certain medical devices unnecessarily ending up in clinical waste, which would otherwise be sent for incineration. Instead these items are recycled into products for the horticultural industry, such as tree ties.

There are approximately 1,500 hospitals in the UK, and Axion, which develops and evaluates novel resource recovery processes and innovative recyclable collection systems, estimates the around 2,250 tonnes of PVC could be recycled each year by collecting oxygen masks, oxygen tubing and anaesthetic masks alone.

The scheme recently won the Sustainability category of the 2016 INOVYN Awards for its innovative approach to sustainable healthcare recycling, and as of November, nine hospitals are currently taking part, with more expected to join in coming months.

Another medical waste scheme, the ‘CircMed’, was launched in September 2015 and explores how proposed circular economy business models for supplying refurbished equipment can work within the UK healthcare sector.

The six-month project, co-funded by the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, focuses on a range of medical imaging equipment, including MRI scanners, ultrasound equipment, CT scanners, interventional X-ray equipment and mobile surgery.

On average, medical imaging equipment supplied as new has a lifespan of 10 years. According to Axion, refurbishment can add a further 10 years to this timeframe, with additional options for parts harvesting after that. The project aimed to get an idea of why UK hospitals have not taken to using refurbished equipment, and looked at the potential of using circular economy business models such as a managed equipment service and pay-per-use.

Axion hopes that the project could have a ‘significant impact’ on the UK healthcare sector, allowing for a more sustainable future while also increasing the affordability of diagnostic equipment in UK hospitals.

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