A 'healthy' approach to PVC sustainability
Healthcare organisations throughout Australia and New Zealand can contribute to improving their environmental footprint and may save on disposal costs through recycling their PVC waste. Sophi MacMillan, Chief Executive of the Vinyl Council of Australia, reports on how their innovative and thriving PVC Recycling in Hospitals Program is making a difference.
Plastics — widely used in clinical applications — are a significant share of hospital general waste. It has been estimated that all plastics account for about one-third of a hospital’s general waste, most of which is sent to landfill. Of all plastic waste generated by a hospital, PVC medical products are estimated to represent about 25%.
The good news is that PVC items such as intravenous bags, face masks and oxygen tubes can be readily recycled by Australian reprocessors and given a sustainable new ‘second life’ in products ranging from garden hoses to outdoor playground matting.
Our PVC Recycling in Hospitals Program aims to collect high-quality, used PVC medical products for recycling into useful new products. Previously this material was sent to landfill. It is estimated that around 50 million PVC intravenous bags are used each year in Australia.
The program began as a small pilot to identify what PVC products were recyclable at three of the hospitals within Western Health in Victoria in 2009. It has since grown to encompass more than 160 hospitals across Australia and New Zealand, thanks to the enthusiasm and commitment of healthcare professionals who have embraced the scheme.
The program is important on so many levels: environmentally, economically, socially and ethically. It is simply the best thing we can do for a material like PVC that is intrinsically linked with our modern-day lifestyles. As our (currently) 25 million-strong population continues to grow, so will levels of waste produced.
As program managers we work with key partners including Baxter Healthcare, which manufactures some of the items collected; Welvic Australia, a PVC reprocessing company; plus Aces Medical Waste and SWS Healthcare Solutions, who specialise in logistics management of the PVC waste collections.
Through PVC Recycling in Hospitals, a significant percentage of PVC can be diverted from landfill to recycling at a lower cost, or cost neutral compared to current landfilling practice. Recycling PVC uses around 85% less energy than producing virgin PVC. It saves around 1.8 kg of carbon emissions per kilogram of medical product recycled.
Most PVC collected from Australian and New Zealand hospitals is processed and manufactured into new products in Australia and New Zealand. The program’s success has inspired similar schemes in South Africa, Thailand and the UK (RecoMed scheme launched in 2014).
How does the PVC Recycling in Hospitals Program work?
Implementing the scheme relies on engagement from the hospital’s management, support services and infection control. Start with one area, such as renal, where there is high volume and capacity to separate PVC items. From there, you can expand to areas such as theatres, recovery wards, intensive care units and day surgery.
Dedicated, clearly marked collection bins for PVC waste are placed close to the theatres and ICU areas where the specific products collected are in high use. Training is crucial to minimise contamination by other products and information materials are provided so hospital staffs are educated as to what can be collected and where it should be placed.
It helps greatly to have a program ‘champion’, such as a sustainability officer, who can promote the scheme and its benefits and engage staff. Generally, most employees at hospitals involved in implementing the program are enthusiastic about it and think it is a great initiative.
A key reason why the scheme has been so successful is due to the passion of the staff in hospitals to undertake recycling of plastic products that they use in their workplace. They recycle at home and so they can’t understand why they shouldn’t be able to recycle in their workplace setting as well.
The program has spread largely through word of mouth and feedback has been positive, with comments such as “it’s a great idea that anyone can be involved”, “healthcare waste bothers me” and “why is this not mandatory in all hospitals? We recycle in our home”.
Correctly sorting the PVC waste is vital to minimising cross-contamination from other materials such as metals, elastic straps and latex, for example. The program is voluntary, relying on staff engagement and vigilance to make it work; while it takes extra time, as one nurse says, “it becomes second nature to do it”.
Expanding the program
Having beaten our ‘150 hospitals by the end of 2018’ target early, we’re working hard to expand the program, especially in Queensland and NSW.
Victoria is a PVC recycling hotspot, with collection bins in 75 healthcare facilities. Interest in program participation is growing in every state and territory, with a quarter of the inquiries received from NSW and similar increases from Queensland and Victoria.
Plans are also underway with Victoria’s Department of Health & Human Services to increase volumes from within hospitals already participating in the program in Victoria. We’re also developing a better feedback mechanism to hospitals on their success at separating the PVC and minimising contamination in collections.
Benefits for all
Participation in the program offers hospitals a cost-efficient way to dispose of recyclable materials, save on disposal costs and reduce landfill. Around 200 tonnes of PVC per year are being recycled through the program, yet there is the potential to do so much more.
Recycling PVC also results in reduced carbon emissions and ensures that this recyclable material can be diverted from landfill and re-used in new products. A standard 240 L recycling bin will hold around 40 kg of PVC — equivalent to about 1000 IV bags. A typical Australian hospital of 300 beds can recycle 2.5 tonnes of PVC each year.
According to Welvic Commercial Director Matthew Hoyne, the future is “really bright” for the recycling of medical waste and for recycling in general. He said: “There’s a strong appetite in the marketplace for manufacturers to have recycled content in their existing products, which is being driven by more eco-conscious consumers.”
Bradley Keam, Sustainability Manager at Baxter Healthcare, commented: “As a large manufacturing site in Western Sydney with more than 600 employees, we have the corporate and environmental responsibility to continually think about the environment that we live in and what legacy we are leaving to the future.”
The Vinyl Council is very proud of how our award-winning program has grown. Our objective is to facilitate growth in sustainable PVC recycling practices in Australia, and this program is an excellent example of what can be achieved through collaboration and persistence to find a solution.
For more information on how you can join the PVC Recycling in Hospitals Program, contact the Vinyl Council of Australia on (03) 9510 1711 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Case study: Sustainability initiatives in a Melbourne Health dialysis centre
About Coburg Dialysis Centre
Coburg Dialysis Centre is a satellite unit of The Royal Melbourne Hospital, which caters for 60 haemodialysis patients, operating 15 chairs six days a week. The unit performs approximately 8500 haemodialysis treatments a year.
Each haemodialysis treatment uses about 2.5 kg of plastic, equating to around 75 kg of plastic per day. This represents large amounts of waste from consumables made from PVC.
Sustainability strategy implemented
In 2013, the PVC recycling program was introduced with assistance from the Vinyl Council of Australia. This included provision of education material for staff, wheelie bins for PVC, and collection of the waste by a local PVC recycler free of charge. Melbourne Health’s Sustainability Officer, Monika Page, also helped to develop hospital-wide recycling initiatives.
Segregating medical waste has led to a 33% reduction in clinical waste per dialysis treatment.
Clinical waste per patient treatment has reduced by an average 0.80 kg over the past two years. This amounts to around 7 tonnes and cost savings of over $5000 annually.
Clinical waste costs approximately five times more than general waste disposal, and twice as much as commingled recycling. PVC is recycled at no cost to us. Between November 2015 and May 2017, just over 1600 kg of PVC have been recycled.
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