Greener Medical Plastics: Sustainability and Environment – Med-Tech Innovation

Kevin Rogers, Director of Plastics and Rubber Commodity at TR Fastenings, explains how medical plastics are evolving into a more sustainable model.

For the past century, plastics have influenced all industrial sectors by providing innovative solutions to the world’s evolving needs. In recent years, major material improvements have resulted in a global increase in the demand for plastic in rapidly growing industries such as healthcare. Today’s most breakthrough medical applications rely on plastics; From MRI and X-ray machines to prostheses, artificial joints, heart valves and the smallest tubes, modern health care would not be possible without the use of plastics.

With net zero targets and environmental sustainability now a major priority for medical plastic and device manufacturers and their supply chain, the industry is now moving in an entirely new direction, that of a sustainable and environmentally friendly plastic product. Here we examine how plastic fulfills the sustainability agenda.

The facts

  • In 2019, global plastics production reached 370 million tons, with 57.9 million tons produced in Europe and a turnover of more than 350 billion euros in the European plastics industry.
  • 60% of plastic products and parts have a usage phase of 1 to 50 years plus and this lapse of time determines when they potentially become waste.
  • Only 5% of the world’s oil resources are used to make plastic, which produces around 5% of the environmentally harmful hydrocarbons.

The science

Plastics are polymers, long chains of molecules made up of repeating links called monomers, often made from chemicals like petroleum. Operating temperatures can vary by hundreds of degrees Celsius, and its molecular structure can be engineered to have different properties – flexible or hard, transparent or opaque. They are recyclable, durable, strong, lightweight, water-repellent and relatively easy and inexpensive to manufacture.

Most modern plastics are made from fossil fuels such as natural gas or petroleum; But with the advent of new technologies, plastics are also made from renewable raw materials such as corn or cotton, recycled oils, secondary plastics, responsibly sourced biomass and even CO2.

Plastics can be divided into two main groups:

Thermosets become stronger when heated, but cannot be melted or reshaped after curing, such as melamine, vinyl, silicone, and acrylic.

Thermoplastics such as those used by TR Fastenings can be reheated, reshaped and reused repeatedly, such as polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). These are not single-use items, they usually last for many years and can be recycled if they are finally disposed of.

Versatility and recyclability

The diversity and complexity of modern injection molding means that multiple “metal” parts can be replaced with a single plastic component; beneficial in reducing costs, but more importantly in maintaining the necessary strength and integrity, increasing efficiency and reducing emissions.

There is always some thermoplastic material left during the molding process that can usually be reclaimed from factory components such as sprues, sprues, burrs and runners. While the plastic has been used once, it can be reused by mixing it with virgin resin, known as a “Regrid”.

At this point it is important to understand that not all plastic products are created equal and not all have the same lifespan. Some are a product in themselves and some are part of an end-user product.

According to a recent report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, plastic consumption has increased twenty-fold over the past 50 years and is expected to double again in the next 20 years.

COVID-19 response

COVID-19 sparked a dramatic increase in demand for TR fasteners and components that were essential for frontline medical devices and that are used in ventilators, medical beds and furniture, ultrasound machines, imaging machines and defibrillators, among others. Plastic components such as cable management, PCB fasteners and various other clips are also in demand, and from TR’s point of view, these products can often be reused or recycled.

A sustainable future

The strength of TR’s partnerships enables the team to stay abreast of advancing technologies and quickly respond to changing customer demands, with sustainability being a key factor. The increasing demand for plastic fasteners has led the TR range to expand dramatically with new products recently launched, including the HUMMEL cable glands used in medical applications.

The medical plastics industry is complex and offers growing opportunities to drive sustainability from the beginning of design to the end of product life. The transition to a low-carbon, circular economy is certainly on the way as plastics continue to shape our lives.

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