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Sustainable Barriers in the Medical Industry

Sustainable Barriers in the Medical Industry

In Brief

With the medical and pharmaceutical industries facing compounded challenges when it comes to corporate social responsibility, the transition to environmentally sustainable product and packaging materials is a slowly growing trend. And while eco-conscious efforts have gained ground over the past ten years, progress toward more efficient use of resources continues to be hindered by production regulation, cost, and availability.

 

The Impact of Regulation on Sustainability

Functional film for medical applications undergoes a complex approval process to ensure reliable performance that meets particular specifications for end-use suitability. Any change in composition or production methods requires re-approval of the material and renegotiation of associated contracts. Unless a significant boost to ROI can be forecast throughout the supply chain, medical product, packaging, and film manufacturers are reluctant to disrupt established operations in favor of sustainability.

 

Increasing Demand & Waste

As demand for medical products and packaging increases exponentially in response to an aging population with growing health care needs, how long can we afford to let sustainability remain a low priority?

“The United States generates approximately 14,000 tons of waste per day, and an estimated 20 to 25 percent of that can be attributed to plastic packaging and products” -Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council 

 

Down-Gauging Flexible Films for Packaging

Disposable packaging is at the top of the list when it comes to applications for environmentally friendly flexible films. Yet, unlike other consumer goods manufacturers, the medical sector has limited suitable alternatives available to them. Down-gauging of thickness in commonly used films, such as polyethylene, polypropylene, and nylon, continues to be the most widely implemented strategy, as it reduces both waste and cost through decreased weight without compromising barrier functionality.

 

Sustainable Alternatives for Disposable Packaging

Optimizing package design and applying eco-friendly materials to secondary and tertiary layers are other effective strategies moving the medical industry a step closer to sustainability. Where sterility requirements limit the options for primary layers, films made from recycled plastic, such as RPET, (recycled polyethylene terephthalate), or recycled film with a virgin PET cap layer are proving suitable options for outer packaging. 

 

Healthcare Facilities & Recycling Programs

Perhaps the most significant advance in mitigating medical and hospital waste is the push to implement more comprehensive recycling programs for healthcare facilities. Aware of the high volume of waste produced in their day-to-day operations, healthcare professionals are getting on board with innovative recycling initiatives, for waste as well as overhead cost reduction. Established in 2012 with assistance from HPRC (Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council), Stanford Healthcare's recycling pilot program is estimated to keep 110 tons of packaging a year from entering the landfill, 75% of which is plastic. Additionally, partnering their recycling program with GreenWaste, resulted in a 75% cost savings over traditional disposal methods.

 

Recycling Programs for PETG Packaging

As highlighted on May 3, 2017 in Recycling Today, Resinate Materials Group, HPRC, and the Plastics Industry Association collaborated on a project to demonstrate how landfill-destined waste materials such as PETG packaging can be recycled into a valuable resource through incorporation into coatings. Moreover, their findings implicate rPETG as a potentially effective additive to other materials such as adhesives, elastomers, and flexible foams. Each medical film and packaging material like PETG, once considered unusable waste, that gets recovered and fed back into the supply chain is a step closer to eliminating the barrier between medical care and sustainability.

“Health care leaders recognize the sizable impact their facilities and practices have on the health and safety of those they serve and on the greater world, and accordingly they understand the importance of making decisions that simultaneously improve their bottom line, the environment, and the community.” -Sustainability Roadmap for Hospitals


In Summary

With more freedom to explore the potential of cutting-edge barrier materials, flexible films from within the food packaging sector are increasingly showing up on the medical industry's radar. Manufacturers of films for food application are edging in on specialized medical production with advanced coextruded and multi-layered cast films. Their enthusiasm for innovation, if combined with a focus on product sustainability, would be a welcome response to health care providers' call for environmentally sound solutions. 

 

Healthcare facilities are faced with a burgeoning patient population and medical product and packaging industries are ramping up production to keep pace. The flexible film market is rapidly expanding in tandem, with an expected surge of synthetic polymer films being introduced into the environment. The barrier, sterilization, and migration considerations of medical films present unique challenges when it comes to alternative materials. However, with contributions from across all participating sectors, sustainability will permeate the medical and pharmaceutical industries at a faster rate.


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