Plastic recycling pilot tackles healthcare waste stream

Thursday, 14 October, 2021

NSW hospitals generate approximately 52,400 tonnes of waste a year, which costs the NSW Government at least $16m in disposal. Now, a NSW Circular initiative has uncovered a way for NSW hospitals to improve the recycling and reuse of some single-use plastic healthcare products previously destined for landfill.

The demonstration project, conducted at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, enabled Orange-based company Allmould Plastics Group to recycle ampoules and needle caps into new building materials, with support of SMaRT@UNSW Sydney.

The waste was collected from selected clinical areas in the hospital, which accounted for 28% of all ampoules and 11% of all needle caps used in the hospital — in just three months, more than 80,000 pieces of clinical waste plastic was collected. If the scheme was expanded to cover all clinical use of these two items alone, this would recover nearly 2 million pieces (or 4 tonnes) of plastic a year from this one hospital.

The 205 kg of plastic collected in the trial was then recycled into products, including 1500 roller door wheels and 7400 building industry grommets and packers, which will be deployed across Australian sites.

The report, Plastics in Healthcare: A Circular Economy Transition Plan, found the project has scale-up potential with clear environmental and economic benefits. By recycling just 40-60% of the clinical waste currently incinerated or landfilled, NSW hospitals could create annual savings equivalent to the cost of hiring 40 nurses. The report also found nearly 30 new additional jobs could be created in plastics recycling by turning high-quality clinical plastic into new components.

NSW Minister for Jobs, Investment, Tourism and Western Sydney, the Hon. Stuart Ayres MP said: “If every hospital in NSW undertook this program, we would be able to unlock significant savings that could be reinvested into patient care and essential services. At the same time, we would divert plastic waste from our environment and create new jobs and economic opportunities in recycling these materials.”

St Vincent’s Hospital CEO Associate Professor Anthony Schembri AM said the project proves that it is possible to extract value and design out of waste without compromising health or safety. “Recycling even just two items across all clinical use can recover nearly two million pieces, or four tonnes of plastic per year, in just one of our hospitals alone. It’s just the beginning.”

Needle cap sorting

Rodrigo Fritis-Lamora, Heart/Lung Transplant Coordinator at St Vincent’s Hospital who implemented the project said: “We see enormous amounts of plastic waste going in the bin every day; it is truly disheartening. Being at the frontlines, staff have a huge desire to see more sustainable practices and we’re just so happy to see our efforts resulting in real benefits to both the hospital and environment.”

Scott Cantrill, Client Adviser, Allmould Plastic Group, can see the economic impacts the rollout of this project, and more of its kind, will have in regional areas such as Orange, where their business is located. “As a result of this project we are now negotiating with waste service companies and hospitals to increase our plastic feedstock and capacity. This will enable us to engage more full-time employees and support a multimillion-dollar investment in plant upgrades,” Cantrill said.

Following the success of this demonstration project, NSW Circular has announced the development of new partnerships with Hunter New England and Northern Sydney Local Health Districts to divert waste from landfill, and to drive efficiencies, new jobs and investment.

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