From Blue to Green: Implementing a Sterilization Wrap Recycling Program

As the greater population places a more watchful eye on environmental practices, organizations are responding by developing sustainability programs. They are looking for ways to lower their environmental impact by reducing waste and contributing, when possible, to a more circular economy. A changing recycling industry – with China no longer accepting plastic from the U.S. – means that it’s even more important to find sources, and ideally uses, for our waste.

Hospitals are not exempt from this.

In fact, they are tremendous waste producers. From sterilization wrap to gowns, irrigation bottles, IV bags, basins, pitchers and trays, many materials are for the most part used once and then thrown away. According to the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC), U.S. healthcare facilities create approximately 14,000 tons of waste per day, most of which is eventually deposited into landfills. Approximately 15% of that waste is plastic packaging or plastic products.

Drilling down even further to the specific products being used, sterilization blue wrap, which protects surgical instruments and other items from contamination after sterilization, is a big contributor. Blue wrap is made from polypropylene, a disposable high-quality plastic commonly used in healthcare-grade materials.

Consider the following statistics:

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 19 percent of the waste stream generated by surgical services is sterile wrap. 
  • Practice Greenhealth estimates some 255 million pounds of blue wrap is thrown away each year. 

Complicating matters further, due to its potentially infectious nature, the EPA has laws in place for disposal of medical waste, which is more complicated and more expensive, costing up to five times more than traditional waste disposal. As such, hospitals are searching for ways to be greener and reduce operating costs by seeking alternatives to the expensive disposal of materials such as blue sterilization wrap.

The good news is that because agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) require that plastics used in medical supplies are made from pure and high-quality materials, those materials have the ability to be recycled and then remade into new products.

Therefore, a solution that reduces cost while offering an environmentally responsible alternative to landfill or incineration represents a very desirable alternative to current practices. In some cases, the pellets made from the recycled wrap can be remade into products such as basins, garbage cans, and more that hospitals can purchase back, completing the circular economy.

Here are some considerations for healthcare facilities interested in starting a surgical wrap recycling program:

  • Investigate existing “green” initiatives: Many hospitals today are developing “Green Teams,” or groups that are focused on sustainability and recycling initiatives. If your hospital has one, connect with them as potential partners and advocates for your wrap recycling program.
  • Get executive buy-in: Before traveling too far down the path, it’s a good idea to first reach out to hospital leadership, especially if there is someone focused on sustainability and get their approval.
  • Float the idea broadly: Once you have executive buy-in, engage colleagues in Environmental Services, Surgical Services, Sterile Processing and others who would be involved. Explain how their behavior would need to change in order to recycle the material.
  • Check with your supplier: The vendor you use to purchase your sterilization wrap can be an excellent partner, and in some cases may have supports in place to help you implement the recycling program, including connecting you with local recyclers, organizing training programs and more.
  • Ensure proper training: Because the wrap has entered the OR, staff need to be trained on which wrap is eligible for the recycling program, as well as the process to follow to ensure it actually gets recycled.
  • Get employees excited: Implementing a sterilization wrap recycling program can have more than a positive impact on the environment. It can be a point of pride for employees, so be sure to promote the program to show what your institution is doing to reduce its environmental footprint.

A sterilization wrap recycling program easily complements existing efforts to become a leader in environmentally responsible healthcare. It has the potential to reduce costs, contribute to the local economy, increase recycling and serves to be a bright spot for your organization.

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