Technological watch

The role of biodegradable materials in reducing medical plastics waste

In recent years, the growing concerns over environmental sustainability have prompted a critical examination of the impact of plastic waste on our planet. Olivia Wilson, outreach manager, ZeroWaste Partnerships, explores the importance of materials' roles in reducing medical plastic waste.  

× While plastics have undoubtedly revolutionised various industries, the healthcare sector, for example, there are many issues that go along with it, such as medical plastics waste.  

This waste includes everything from syringes to IV bags, packaging, and more. All of these contribute to the growing burden on landfills and the issues of non-biodegradable materials.  

Luckily though, there is hope in the form of biodegradable materials. They offer a promising future that, if utilised well, can help address this issue.  

Overview of the bio-based and biodegradable plastics  Bio-based and biodegradable plastics have emerged as innovative alternatives to conventional plastics, offering a more sustainable approach to packaging and product design.  

Unlike traditional plastics derived from fossil fuels, bio-based plastics are derived from renewable sources, like plants, starches, or agricultural waste. These materials are a valuable opportunity to reduce our dependence on non-renewable resources and minimise the carbon footprint associated with plastic.  

Biodegradable plastics possess the ability to break down and decompose naturally. They can be broken down by microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, into simpler compounds that are reintegrated into the natural environment without leaving anything behind. On the other hand, conventional plastics can persist for hundreds of years.  

The incorporation of bio-based and biodegradable plastics in the healthcare industry holds immense potential for reducing the environmental impact of medical plastic waste.  

These materials can be tailored to meet specific requirements, offering comparable performance to conventional plastics in terms of strength, durability, and barrier properties. From medical device components to packaging, biodegradable alternatives provide opportunities for creative and sustainable solutions.  

Research into biodegradable plastics and what can be done now to restrict plastic usage to sustainable levels  Researchers and scientists around the world are actively engaged in advancing the field of biodegradable plastics, aiming to develop innovative materials that are not only environmentally friendly but also meet the requirements of the healthcare industry.  

The areas of research that are being pursued include enhancing the biodegradability of these plastics by optimising their chemical composition and structure. This includes exploring additives and blends to accelerate the breakdown process, ensuring that the materials degrade efficiently.  

Scientists are also working to improve the functional properties of these plastics to make them suitable for a wide range of medical scenarios. This includes their mechanical strength, barrier properties, and stability to ensure they meet the necessary performance standards.  

Restricting plastic usage   While research and development efforts are essential to advancing biodegradable plastics, immediate action is also required to restrict plastic usage to sustainable levels.  

This includes promoting the prioritisation of reusable materials in healthcare facilities and replacing disposable plastic products with biodegradable alternatives.  

Increasing awareness among healthcare professionals, staff, and patients about the environmental impact of plastic waste is crucial, as well. This can be done through several types of outreach, such as sharing best practices, supporting research initiatives, and collectively working towards sustainable solutions can accelerate progress in reducing plastic usage.  

One of the ways that the healthcare industry can make a major change is through their procurement policies. Organisations can establish guidelines that encourage suppliers to provide environmentally friendly alternatives and evaluate products based on their life cycle impacts. 

It’s also important to consider what legislative measures might be taken. Implementing policies that promote the use of these materials, incentivise recycling, and more, can help discourage public consumption of plastic.  

Reasons why biodegradable plastics benefit the environment  There are a number of reasons why biodegradable plastics offer benefits to environmental conservation and sustainability. Here are a few key reasons:  

Reduction in plastic pollution  

Biodegradable plastics have the ability to break down naturally through biological processes, such as microbial decomposition. This contrasts with conventional plastics, which can persist in the environment for hundreds if not thousands of years.  

By reducing plastic pollution, we can also reduce the accumulation of plastic and landfills, oceans, and other natural ecosystems. 

Conservation of non-renewable resources  

Biodegradable plastics are often derived from renewable resources, such as plants or agricultural waste, a distinct departure from conventional plastics. By utilising sustainable materials, the production of biodegradable plastics helps to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels around the world, which are finite resources. This conservation helps to mitigate climate change and reduce carbon emissions. 

Decreased energy consumption  

The manufacturing processes for biodegradable plastics generally require less energy compared to traditional plastics made from fossil fuels. This helps to reduce energy consumption levels and lower greenhouse gas emissions. 

Landfill space conservation 

As biodegradable plastics naturally degrade over time, they also occupy less space in landfills compared to conventional plastics. This is a unique way of conservation that helps to alleviate the strain on waste management systems while also extending the lifespan of existing landfill sites. 

Promoting a greener future: biodegradable solutions for medical plastics waste  The healthcare industry has a crucial role to play in promoting a greener future. Biodegradable solutions for medical plastics waste offer a promising path forward. These solutions provide a sustainable alternative to conventional plastics, as discussed above, which often contribute to a variety of environmental pollutants and means of waste accumulation. 

One of the key benefits of biodegradable solutions is their potential to significantly reduce environmental impact. By incorporating biodegradable materials into healthcare products, such as medical devices, packaging, and more, the industry can reduce its ecological footprint. 

Traditional plastics can persist in a way that biodegradable materials do not. Furthermore, biodegradable solutions promote sustainable resource management in the healthcare industry more generally.  

They also help to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels and non-renewable resources. While promoting a greener future for the world, it's important to collaborate with healthcare organisations, manufacturers, and researchers, all of whom play a vital role in driving the development and adoption of biodegradable solutions. 

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Publication date: 12/07/2023

Medical Plastics News


This project has received funding from the Bio Based Industries Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 837761.