Plastic has a central role in healthcare; Many plastic products are life-saving, among others, syringes and intravenous sets. Moreover, plastic packaging plays a crucial part in maintaining the sterility of products made for insertion into human bodies.
Plastic plays a vital contribution to patient safety, but, the use of plastic in the healthcare sector can be reduced. As a result, ensuring that plastic, though a necessity, is handled and disposed of as best as possible, so as to reduce the environmental and human as best as possible (is a necessity?)
Hazardous chemicals in plastic
Plastic is found in different sorts and often has additives consisting of colours, stabilisers, and softeners. Many of these substances are toxic and can leak from products during usage, or demand special precautions during their production process.
Bisphenol A is an example of a harmful substance found in catheters, tubes, syringes, haemodialysis, contact lenses etc. Bisphenol A is currently suspected of being a hormone-disrupting substance and causing/contributing to lower levels of fertility among other things.
DEHP is another substance used, among other things, to soften PVC. DEHP is one of the known hormone disrupting phthalates that can cause damage to the reproductive system and also cause liver cancer. Denmark has, since 2009, had a strategy for phasing out and marking the phthalates that are known hormone disruptors. In Denmark, a comprehensive list of PVC free products has been drawn up for the healthcare sector.
That the equipment in use in hospitals has a lasting effect on patient’s health can be seen in a study from Germany that showed that the incidence of liver problems among new-borns (cholestasis) fell from 50 % to 13 %, when PVC-infusion sets for intravenous feeding were replaced with PVC-free infusion sets
Disposal of plastic
The vast majority of plastic packaging waste in Denmark, including daily waste from hospitals, is disposed of by incineration. Resulting energy derived from the process is used for electricity and heat. Smoke is rinsed to remove an array of harmful substances, but there is a rather significant amount of CO2 that is released during the incineration of these fossil plastics. In Denmark, about 20% (or 0,5 million tons) of the incinerated waste is turned into slag and other forms of residual products. The most hazardous of these, containing dioxin and heavy metals, are deposited in mountain pits in and around the Oslo inlets.
What you can do
Increased recycling of plastic is gaining attention as a part of the solution to the plastic crisis. Unfortunately, we cannot recycle our way out of this crisis. Globally, only about nine % of all plastic is recycled and many plastic products and plastic packaging cannot be recycled for technical or commercial reasons.
What you can do in the clinic:
- Reduce use where possible
- Remove unnecessary products
- Reduce waste, for example when unpacking
- Strengthen recycling through good sorting practice
- Inquire about recyclable products and recyclable packaging
- Avoid products and packaging containing PVC and styren
- Avoid products containing laminates (different types of plastic)
- Avoid packaging made up of a combination of several types of materials (ex. paper and plastic)