Moving the needle on single-use medical waste

As the chair of a roundtable discussion held during INDEX™23 in Geneva – The Sustainable Future of Medical Nonwovens – industry consultant Christel Dendas outlined how single-use medical nonwovens were introduced 40 years ago to fight hospital-acquired infections and rapidly became successful by offering better protection against infection than reusable textiles.

“Their importance was certainly underlined during the Covid-19 pandemic,” she said. “Medical nonwovens can save lives and we expect the market to keep growing, driven by demography and the increasing risk of pandemic disease linked to global warming. However, if nothing changes by 2030 there will be one million tons of single-use plastic waste generated for incineration each year. If, instead of being incinerated, it could be used as a feedstock for plastic recycling, it would have a value of more than €600 million. We are currently destroying value with a significant impact on the planet.”

Legislative changes are on the way, she added. Within the European Union it has recently become mandatory that in sustainability reports, emissions from incineration must now be included. The reports will also have to explain how companies will reduce this waste to achieve net zero targets. This will apply equally to the healthcare product brands and manufacturers of nonwovens and films.
“Incineration is no longer just the problem of the hospitals and pressure will come either to recycle or move back to washable solutions,” Christel Dendas said. “You may think that it is impossible, but the European Commission has already requested opinions on the safety of reusable textiles in the operating room, which signals the sector is drawing attention from legislators.”

Following further discussions at INDEX™23 and determined to create change in an industry in which she has been actively involved for over 20 years, Christel Dendas has subsequently initiated the Mediwaste project, aiming to kick-start action.
Mediwaste has now secured the backing of Impact Hub Lausanne in Switzerland and the plan is to first undertake a feasibility study of the economic case for establishing a circular system across Swiss hospitals. At the same time, a business model is being devised for carrying out trials and forging strategic alliances to enable a first pilot scheme to be established at an initial Swiss hospital, with a view to rapidly replicating it at others as the project moves forward.
The potential waste recovery value is estimated to be in the region of €25 million – a value that will inevitably grow as the demand for regenerated feedstocks such as polypropylene and polyethylene intensifies in the next few years.
“It gives me great satisfaction to have initiated this project in order to bring together the many talented people who are passionate about this opportunity to make systemic change,” Christel Dendas said. “Project coordination also opens up an exciting new opportunity for me in my career as a business executive.”

While various routes to recycling the waste will be explored, an initial project partner for the waste collection step is Thermal Compaction Group (TCG), based in Cardiff, UK, which has developed the Sterimelt system.
Sterimelt units have now been initiated at a number of hospitals in the UK and turn polypropylene nonwoven waste into plastic bricks by 85% compaction, melting and cooling. The bricks reduce the cost and carbon footprint of the transportation and enable the waste to be safely transferred to the recycling centre.
“Our first installation was at the St Woolos hospital in South Wales – an archaic Victorian site that appropriately was the first NHS (National Health Service) hospital in Wales,” explained TCG Director David Scheeres. “Some recycling initiatives that have been proposed are preposterous simply because the minute you try and transport voluminous materials you’re generating loss. At St Woolos and the other sites where Sterimelt systems are now in place, twice-weekly collections have been replaced by a collection of the plastic bricks every three months and gate fees at the recycling centre are also eliminated, making the operation profitable.”
Asked why the UK’s National Health Service was not deploying Sterimelt units across all of its hospitals, David Scheeres said this was largely down to the system’s fragmented nature.
“Each hospital trust has its own purchase manager and there’s no consolidated purchasing programme,” he explained. “The hospitals that have adopted the Sterimelt system so far, have done so because they already recognise that landfill is becoming increasingly expensive and it now represents a long-term savings.”

Mediwaste will explore what options are realistically available for moving towards a fully circular model with the collected plastic bricks – beyond a second life – via several recycling options. New technologies for both mechanical and chemical recycling – including molecular cleaning – are arising and could soon enable a closed loop business model.
 “As a strategy consultant, the aim is to establish a solution that will work not just for one or two individual hospitals but for all of them, and to establish a solid business case for it,” Christel Dendas said. “Being outside the European Union, Switzerland is well-placed to accelerate the regulatory infrastructure that will be required to scale up the project.”
 “And as a Board Advisor, this project is most valuable to understand and represent in the board room the voice of all the stakeholders. It is a comprehensive system involving close collaboration and the coordination of all of the steps involved in case of a fully circular chain. As boards are looking for new ways to work with their stakeholders to co-create collaborative solutions for a more sustainable future, I wish with this project to pave the way towards more circularity in the Medtech sector.”

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