As the medical industry examines its waste generation and recycling practices, Waste Management Review explores incineration as a solution for non-recyclable plastic.
When speaking with Australian media in September, Peter Thomson, the United Nations’ top envoy for the world’s oceans, compared the fight against plastic pollution to the fight against big tobacco.
Plastic has become so ubiquitous in the natural environment that United Nations scientists suggest it could serve as an indicator of the Anthropocene and lead to a reengineering of the planet.
While extreme, the statement is not without merit. A Project MainStream report, for example, suggests material in the ocean could outweigh fish by 2050, with an estimated eight million metric tonnes entering the world’s oceans every year.
In 2018, an Australian senate inquiry into the waste and recycling industry recommended a ban on all single-use plastics by 2030. Similarly, on the other side of the globe, members of the European Parliament earlier this year voted to ban the material by 2021.
Though initiatives like this are a step in the right direction, associated conversations regularly focus on seemingly frivolous consumer items such as coffee lids, straws and plastic bottles. However, as plastic’s chemical composition lends itself to sterility, it is also a necessary material for the medical industry.
For generations, plastic has been used to manufacture IV drips, syringes, bandages, garments, surgical covers and other indispensable medical products.
One of the most commonly used plastics in the medical industry is polypropylene, which is used to make syringes, pouches, test tubes and beakers. While it is recyclable, state and territory health regulations require it to be disposed of post-use.
Problems stemming from the inadequacy of disinfection methods lead to much of this material ending up in landfill or, as is sometimes the case, the natural environment.
A key issue is a lack of material substitutes for clinical products, meaning the use of single-use plastics in the medical industry is largely unavoidable.
Princess Alexandra Hospital (PAH) in Woolloongabba, Queensland is one of many Australian hospitals attempting to address the issue by introducing proactive reduction and recycling initiatives.
Brendon Seipolt, PAH Operational Services, says the hospital’s actions include recycling programs for PVC, soft plastics and kimguard (a form of sterilisation wrap) and the introduction of sugar-cane-derived, biodegradable kidney dishes.
Brendon says these initiatives led to a 600,000-kilogram waste reduction in 2018. Despite this, much of the waste PAH produces is non-recyclable, namely contaminated clinical soft plastic. To handle the material, PAH engaged clinical waste incineration specialists Ace Waste.
“PAH produces an average of 700,000 kilograms of clinical waste per year that requires incineration, in keeping with safety and quality practices,” Brendon says.
“This is a significant reduction of over 200,000 kilograms since 2012, through an ongoing program of appropriate waste identification and disposal.”
Alexander Homewood, Ace Waste Executive Director, says that while sustainability programs like those implemented by PAH and other medical facilities are important, recycling alone cannot sufficiently address the plastic problem.
“In the medical industry, the spectre of non-recyclable plastics is complex, with the reality of infection control and single-use necessity challenging the notion that recycling and landfill are the only waste management mechanisms available,” Alexander says.
He adds that conservative estimates suggest 30 per cent of all clinical waste is non-recyclable contaminated plastic.
“Ace Waste works with the PAH and other health clients throughout Queensland and Victoria to manage the second part of the equation, and in doing so close the loop with a service that destroys everything through incineration,” Alexander says.
“Ace Waste’s high-temperature incinerators present a viable alternative by completely destroying infectious materials, which stops it from entering the ocean, while also ensuring pathogens are unable to enter the ground or atmosphere.”
In addition to destroying the material in its entirety, the Ace Waste incineration process creates a high-calorific energy source.
Incineration plants generally require natural gas to maintain combustion. However, Alexander says the high plastic content of clinical waste streams means Ace Waste’s incinerators produce enough energy to independently maintain combustion conditions.
“Contaminated plastic in clinical waste produces 28 megajoules per kilo of heat energy, and by comparison coal produces 32,” Alexander says.
“By burning contaminated non-recyclable plastic, Ace Waste is generating significant amounts of energy from a material source that usually ends up in landfill or worse, in the ocean.”
While avoidance and recycling are the key drivers towards positive environmental outcomes, society can’t ignore the reality of waste generation in the medical industry.
“We need to understand that some waste is unavoidable, and rather than turning a blind eye, should consider disposal methods that support the overall goal of a more healthy and sustainable future,” Alexander says.