Medical plastic recycling


Concerns over infection prevention, continued increase in the use of single-use, disposable plastics, and changes in international recycling markets and a lack of U.S.-based material recovery facilities have left operating rooms awash in single-use medical plastics. Additionally, a 0.5 percent contamination rate requirement on marketable medical plastics has challenged the compliance of many hospital recycling programs.

One ubiquitous medical plastic, ”blue wrap,” is estimated to make up almost 20 percent of all operating room waste. While these plastics do an excellent job of keeping surgical supplies, solutions, and equipment sterile, they have traditionally been very difficult to recycle. 

Through education and process changes, Spectrum Health was able to shift thousands of pounds of medical plastic to recycling, which costs half as much as waste disposal.  

Some hospitals have worked with recycling companies to keep some clean medical plastics out of regulated medical waste and solid waste bins through recycling. Single-stream recycling programs, for example, can accommodate many plastics from the operating room while eliminating the time it takes for sorting.

Examples of marketable recyclable medical plastics include:  

  • Sterilization wrap - polypropylene (PP) and may be recycled with other #5 materials
  • Irrigation bottles - polypropylene (PP), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which can be recycled with other #5, #2 materials
  • Basins, pitchers, trays - made from polypropylene (PP) and may be recycled with #5 materials
  • Tyvek - made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and may be recycled with other #2 materials
  • Flexible clear packaging - made from polyethylene (PE) and may be recycled with #2 materials

Practice Greenhealth offers tools and resources that help our members streamline operating room waste disposal and identify opportunities to recycle. Our goal is to provide step-by-step resources that make it simpler for any hospital to design, implement, and measure the success of these efforts while maintaining patient safety and high-quality care in the operating room.

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