The Vinyl Council of Australia (VCA) has championed a PVC recovery program in hospitals that is now on the cusp of going national.
Australian consumption of PVC in the most common medical products is estimated to be at least 2,500 tonnes a year, which includes 50 million IV bags.
Plastics are thought to account for one third of all a hospital’s general waste, of which PVC represents 25 per cent. Most of this is sent to landfill in Australia.
Against this background, the Vinyl Council of Australia (VCA) has worked with Forbes McGain, an anaesthetist and ICU physician for Melbourne’s Western Health hospitals, to develop the ‘PVC Recovery In Hospitals’ program, which is expanding across the country and gaining global recognition.
“You always need a willing champion for a workplace recycling program to work,” says Helen Millicer, VCA’s Vinyl Industry Recycling Strategy Manager.
Dr McGain phoned VCA in 2009 for advice on a practical way to reduce the amount of plastic medical products going to landfill. This impromptu enquiry presented an ideal opportunity for VCA to instigate a project to look at what PVC products could be reasonably recovered in wards and operating theatres.
“Emergency departments, for example, use lots of PVC products, but because of the time pressures they face, it isn’t reasonable to expect them to recycle,” explains Helen.
With what Helen describes as “the stellar support” of the management team at Western Health, in March 2010 VCA started its trial for the best way to collect PVC medical products and for finding an end-market for them.
It tried out collecting in different parts of the hospital, the best items to recover for minimal contamination, bin signage, and how to train and engage staff.
The VCA and Western Health also worked together on an online educational toolkit and video – in conjunction with recyclers and the New South Wales and Victorian governments – to help engage and inform medical staff.
Simultaneously, VCA was proactive in looking for companies to collect and recycle the material, putting it back into product in Australia.
A significant feature of medical PVC products, such as intravenous bags, face masks and tubes, is that they are made of one plastic, not multiple layers of diverse plastics. Important for any viable resource recovery program, this means they are highly recyclable and that a market exists for the quality material. However, it hasn’t been easy for VCA to find suitable recycling companies.
“We have to do better in supporting investment to enable processing,” explains Helen. “The reprocessors have to have wash facilities so that any contamination can be removed, and the recovered PVC can go back into new products in Australia.”
Whole supply chain
A key factor for the program’s success is the fact that the Vinyl Council has pulled together a strong team of champions and companies covering the whole supply chain – hospitals, a producer (Baxter), collectors (Aces Medical and State Waste Services) and reprocessors (Cryo Grind and Welvic).
Most of the key companies are now members and involved in regular teleconferences about the program.
“We sort out issues regarding collections, contamination and data; it’s valuable,” says Helen.
Instead of going to landfill, in Australia the PVC medical products now become hose for industry, gardens and fire extinguishers. In New Zealand, it becomes safety mats for workplaces and play areas.
“Baxter Healthcare is a key partner and we could not have grown the program without them. They have assisted streamline collections and help hospitals with training and bins,” Helen says. “Because they are a supplier of PVC medical products, such as IV bags, they know the quantities that go into hospitals. Therefore, they know what can be collected and number of bins required.”
From one hospital trialling the viability of the program in 2010, the scheme is now a reality. In a relatively short time, the PVC Recovery In Hospitals program has grown to 52 participating hospitals in Victoria, Tasmania, New South Wales and New Zealand, and collects around 6,000kg of PVC every month. Since the program began, 120,000kg of PVC product has been recovered and recycled.
Expansion of the program
Helen is proud that the program has expanded and says a lot of its success is down to word of mouth.
“The word is spreading. We often get calls from front-line staff, often nurses, who want to start PVC recycling in their hospitals,” explains Helen. “People want to do the right thing. They hate throwing stuff away that they know could have a second life.”
She attributes its success to date down to “sheer determination”, the vision of its supporters, and supply chain approach.
VCA has set ambitious targets to consolidate the delivery and grow the reach. It plans to expand the program into South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland in 2016. It aims to reach 85 hospitals by October 2016, recovering 150 tonnes of PVC a year. The program already has a growing reputation internationally, as it is being replicated in the UK, South Africa and Thailand.
“This is an excellent exemplar of a strategy to recover PVC and put it back into products,” says Helen. “But we do need significant investment from government and firms for it to expand and become commercially viable.”
The next steps include looking to engage state governments to support recycling and reprocessing in Australia. The Tasmanian Minister for Health is already a staunch supporter for the program and will appear in a video to support its roll-out nationally.
“It’s important that the other Australian states recognise this world-leading program and support it being rolled out across the country,” states Helen.
In the meantime, VCA continues to champion resource recovery of PVC products, with projects underway including one to target coated fabrics, such as billboards and truck tarpaulins.
Helen asserts that other industry associations should be doing more to work with material supply chains to divert valuable resources back into product.
“The fact is our policy settings around waste and resource recovery need to change. It is no longer sufficient to focus on collecting and sorting materials. The material has to go somewhere,” states Helen. “We must also look to support reprocessors for product manufacture.
“Not only does this keep material out of landfill, helping councils and for the good of the environment, but it will support jobs and remanufacturing in Australia,” she adds.