Moving recycling into the operating room

The rising number of high-risk surgeries as a result of advances in medical technology, in parallel with the prevalence of healthcare-associated infections (HAIs), are seeing a significant rise in the market for single-use disposable nonwoven and plastic products.

In Europe alone HAIs are reported to affect around one in every 18 hospital patients – around 80,000 people – on any given day.
 Vital to combatting this, especially in the operating room, are surgical gowns and face masks, but also sterlization wrap (‘blue wrap’) for instruments, as well as cubicle curtains, slide sheets and transfer sheets.
Surprisingly, however, many of these materials - when not contaminated - are still being either incinerated or sent to landfill after use, which is a situation one UK-based technology developer is working to change.


Advanced surgical gowns and other medical disposables are manufactured by a number of the leading companies who will be exhibiting at the forthcoming INDEX™20 exhibition, which takes place at Palexpo in Switzerland, from March 31 to April 3 next year, including Helsinki, Finland-headquartered Ahlstrom-Munksjö and Berry, headquartered in Evansville, Indiana, USA.
Chief among the requirements for surgical gowns is naturally safety, and Ahlstrom-Munksjö’s tri-laminate Breathable Viral Barrier (BVB) fabric, for example, provides excellent barrier properties against the viruses that cause infectious diseases. The outer layer of the BVB provides water repellency and strength, while the inner layer is soft and comfortable when worn during long surgical procedures. The barrier film sandwiched between the outer layers has a monolithic, non-porous structure providing an impervious barrier, while allowing moisture vapour to pass through.  Breathability is formed by adding particles to the film, which under stress form micro-holes.
Ahlstrom-Munksjö’s BVB fabrics are made from spunbond bicomponent continuous fibres and they are virtually lint-free, as are Berry’s market-leading surgical gowns, which consist of four meltblown layers sandwiched between two spunbond fabrics (SMMMMS) and in independent tests have been shown to have  bacterial filtration efficiency of 97% – three times greater than cotton – as well as blood blocking efficiency of 98%.


Berry’s sterilization wrap solutions are also manufactured using the latest advanced spunmelt technology to provide the necessary strength, tear resistance and barrier protection, with up to 97% bacterial filtration efficiency.
They are compatible with major sterilization processes such as gamma, ETO and steam and their superior strength resists tearing to reduce any risk of HAIs.
“Experience has shown that in surgery, single-use surgical barrier materials are a key factor in preventing the transfer of micro-organisms,” says Pierre Wiertz, General Manager of EDANA, the owner of the INDEX™ brand. “Although in Europe the market penetration of single-use gowns and drapes has reached around 60-65% – taking geographical differences into account – this is still significantly lower than in the USA. More has to be done to help increase that penetration and thus contribute to better infection control and reducing HCAIs.”

Waste production

With a range of products all based on a single polymer – in this case polypropylene – there is also an excellent opportunity for recycling, and in the UK, a number of National Health Service (NHS) hospitals have recently purchased their own Sterimelt recycling units to carry out this in-house.
Sterimelt technology, developed by the Thermal Compaction Group (TCG), based in Cardiff, Wales, can turn a wide range of uncontaminated polypropylene nonwoven disposables of any colour back into polypropylene blocks that can be resold to the plastics industry.
It employs thermal heater plates to densify and ‘re-engineer’ the original products within a well-insulated casing that is safe to touch, and with a filter system to absorb all but the faintest trace of odour. The emissions have been tested independently and verified as less than the normal particles found in the atmosphere.
In June 2019 a new cooling system was introduced to Sterimelt, getting its cycle time down to below an hour.
“Sustainability should be high on the agenda for any organisation, including the healthcare system,” said Natalie Roddis, Waste and Sustainability Officer at the Burton Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which installed a Sterimelt system in March 2018. “Sterimelt is a fantastic way for healthcare providers to reduce their impact on the environment, by ensuring that the valuable resources used to produce single-use polypropylene tray wraps and other products are recycled for reintroduction into the manufacturing chain. TCG is incredibly knowledgeable and has been a great support both during and after the installation of our Sterimelt machine. The TCG team shares my passion and dedication to improving our environment and I look forward to seeing what other innovations they develop in the future.”


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