Advanced Recycling for Healthcare Plastics: Debunking Four Common Myths

Aug 4, 2022 1:35 PM ET

Plastics plays a unique and critical role in the delivery of cost-effective global healthcare, as clearly illustrated in COVID-19 response actions over the past two years. According to an analysis by the World Health Organization, plastic production has more than doubled since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While global plastic waste is on track to nearly triple by 2060, research shows that only 9% of plastic waste is effectively recycled. The Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC) believes that in addition to “reduce and reuse” initiatives, recycling is critical to solving the plastic waste problem.

Advanced recycling (also referred to as molecular or chemical recycling) uses solvents, heat, enzymes, and even sound waves to purify or break down plastic waste for recycling (Source: Closed Loop Partners). Advanced recycling technologies, while still evolving and not yet widely available, have emerged as promising solutions for difficult-to-recycle healthcare plastics (such as multilaminate packaging materials or a stream of mixed plastic waste) that can’t be processed using traditional mechanical recycling processes.

Advanced recycling technologies complement mechanical recycling processes, providing another avenue toward reducing reliance on virgin plastic feedstock made from fossil fuels and enabling a circular model where plastic materials can be recycled and reused indefinitely. However, some questions remain surrounding the overall impacts and sustainability of advanced recycling processes. HPRC is seeking to answer these questions while debunking common myths around advanced recycling, with a specific focus on unique opportunities to recycle healthcare plastics.

Myth #1: Investing in advanced recycling doesn’t make sense until we address the general lack of capacity for mechanical recycling — which is simpler, cheaper, and applicable to the majority of plastic waste.

Fact: It’s absolutely true that mechanical recycling is the backbone of plastics recycling. We should continue investing in infrastructure for all forms of recycling, including mechanical recycling, as they share common challenges of collection, sorting, and preparation for recycling processes. But while mechanical recycling can address a portion of the plastic waste we face today, it also has limitations. To be successful, our recycling infrastructure must be able to handle plastic waste as we actually find it – in waste streams containing mixed materials, multi-layer structures, and flexible form factors. These are the areas where the limitations of our current recycling system are most pronounced. The combination of mechanical and advanced recycling is necessary to create a viable and robust solution to recycle ALL plastics.

Bottom Line: We need to look at recycling holistically to address the large volume of recyclable plastics, including those not currently served by mechanical recycling technologies. Mechanical and advanced recycling share a common infrastructure and should be viewed as complementary solutions, both of which merit greater investment.

Myth #2: Advanced recycling is bad for the environment because it has a high carbon footprint.

Fact: Carbon footprint data for advanced recycling processes is still being researched, and while early indications show that most advanced recycling technologies generally have a greater carbon footprint than mechanical recycling processes — they usually have a lower carbon footprint than producing plastics from fossil fuels. The ability to displace these fossil fuel-derived materials is where advanced recycling technologies can help bring dramatic positive transformation to the sustainability of our value chains.

Moreover, advanced recycling processes enable material circularity to keep recycled plastic material in circulation rather than sending it to landfills or incineration. By investing in recycling infrastructure and working to create co-location of advanced and mechanical recycling in close proximity to the feedstock and end markets, we can lower the overall carbon impacts of both mechanical and advanced recycling processes.

Bottom Line: Both mechanical and advanced recycling processes have a lower carbon footprint than producing plastics from fossil fuels, reduce overall reliance on fossil fuels, and drive material circularity, where plastic materials can be recycled and repurposed an indefinite number of times.

Myth #3: The net environmental impact of using recycled plastic content derived from advanced recycling is worse than using materials such as metal, paper, or glass.

Fact: Lifecycle analysis goes beyond just plastics, considering all materials through the same critical lens and holding them to the same standards. For example, if a manufacturer opts to replace plastics with a different material such as metal, paper, or glass, the full lifecycle impacts of that material from sourcing, supply chain, manufacturing, transport, usage, and end-of-life must be considered— not just the impact of the process used to recycle it. For example, what impact does a heavier glass container have on the emissions from transportation? How much energy is required to produce a metal container, relative to other materials? What is the land usage impact of sourcing paper and pulp?

The overall impact of advanced recycling is highly complex and is still being researched. Advanced recyclers must evaluate the full impact of their technologies through a comprehensive life cycle assessment (LCA) and be transparent in sharing the results of their assessments with all stakeholders. Most advanced recycling companies welcome direct stakeholder engagement, and many are sharing LCA data publicly (e.g., recyclers Eastman and PureCycle Technologies).

Bottom Line: Environmental impact should be evaluated by considering the full lifecycle of creating a product, bringing it to market, and using it, not just the impact of the process used to recycle or dispose of it. Advanced recyclers must be proactive in researching and sharing this data.

Myth #4: Advanced recycling isn’t really “recycling” because it is used to create fuels.

Fact: Advanced recycling processes convert recovered plastics into raw materials suitable for producing new plastic products in a circular system that does not rely on virgin materials. This model for material circularity is HPRC’s stated goal for plastics recycling in the healthcare industry.

As we explore the root of this myth, it is helpful to remember that plastics are derived from fossil fuels, which are naturally occurring mixtures of hydrocarbons. Advanced recycling relies in part on technologies that convert waste plastic materials back into the hydrocarbons used to produce them. Just as fossil fuels can be used to make plastic or burned as fuel, these recovered hydrocarbons can be used to produce plastic, which would be considered “recycling,” or to produce fuels, which would be considered “recovery”.

Further complicating matters, there may be multiple parties involved – one party that converts recycled plastic into hydrocarbons, a second party that takes the hydrocarbons and creates plastic, and a third party that takes the hydrocarbons and creates fuels. While both end users contribute to a reduction in fossil fuel demand, burning these hydrocarbons as fuels reduces the material available for production of new plastic. In our work, HPRC strives for plastics circularity where waste plastics are converted back into new plastics; we continue to invest in our research and efforts with that goal in mind.

Bottom Line: Plastic waste can be converted into hydrocarbons that can be used to produce plastic (recycling) and/or fuels (recovery). When used to produce plastics, these technologies have the capacity for complete material circularity and can help break the cycle of reliance on fossil fuels for producing plastic products. This is the model HPRC seeks to advance.

HPRC’s Position on Advanced Recycling

Since 2010, the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC) has been working to improve the recyclability of healthcare plastics and drive a circular economy. Our work spans across the entire value chain, addressing barriers to plastics recycling in the design, manufacturing, and use of healthcare products and packaging. We believe that advanced recycling is a complementary solution to mechanical recycling and presents a unique opportunity for healthcare plastics circularity. Read more about our position and research on advanced recycling here.