The healthcare industry faces many challenges, one of them is sustainability. The increased pressure to make overall health facilities’ operations, material sourcing and disposal more sustainable is more than simply replacing the lightbulbs and HVAC filters. In an industry where provider and patient safety is critical, materials used in everyday items, such as single-use items, including medical and surgical gowns and other personal protective equipment (PPE), must meet strict standards, and having sustainable properties too will help facilities meet their goals.
Sustainability is a growing priority in the healthcare industry. More than 5 million tons of waste is produced by hospitals each year. Various initiatives focus on efficient building operations, smarter use of resources and streamlining diagnostic and treatment methodologies—all are ways the industry is trying to reduce its waste. Of course, all this must be done without a negative impact on patient care.
A critical factor effecting sustainability in healthcare facilities is not the obvious operational factors of lighting, water and energy – it’s medical textiles, such as surgical gowns, gloves, drapes, face masks, dresses and linen. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, all healthcare workers must wear or use these protective medical textiles when coming in contact with patients to reduce or prevent disease transmission.
When it’s time to dispose of medical textiles, guidelines and treatments designed to protect those who encounter materials that could have infectious medical waste on them must be followed. Yet, when a medical textile only contains noninfectious medical waste, such as tissues, fluids or other biological materials known to be free from contamination, it does not require treatment prior to being disposed. This is because noninfectious medical waste does not pose any biological, chemical, radioactive or physical hazard. It’s considered to be non-hazardous medical waste, which is forecasted to account for 70% of the medical waste market in 2020-2025. From a sustainability standpoint, this provides a significant opportunity for the healthcare industry.
For example, medical gowns. They need to provide protection, comfort and sustainability features while meeting industry regulations and standards (e.g., Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI)). In addition, they need to keep wearers safe from infectious diseases while allowing them to move and for body heat to escape. When focusing on medical gown sustainability, you need to start at the beginning through post-use handling.
A sustainable, lightweight material with maximum protection
This is where selecting the optimal material comes into consideration. For example, Arnitel® is a high-performance, polyester-based block, ThermoPlastic Copolyester (TPC) elastomer that has been used in medical supply manufacturing for more than 20 years. Unlike some other materials, Arnitel-based monolithic films in multilayer gown constructions are rated AAMI Level 4, the highest fluid and microbial barrier performance, and has been tested to provide the maximum protection for the world’s top standards. In addition to its best-in-class protection capabilities, it is lightweight with a breathable and durable structure.
The use of Arnitel in medical applications also provides significant sustainability benefits. It is 100% recyclable and produces no toxic gases when incinerated. It’s materials membranes also leave a carbon footprint up to 70% lower than materials made of fluor-based chemistry microporous membranes because there is less energy involved in producing them. These materials can also be manufactured from mass-balanced materials, meaning they are partly made of monomers obtained from recycled plastic waste.
Mass-balanced material solutions are chemically and mechanically identical to the petrochemical-based materials solution, eliminating the need for requalification. They allow companies to accurately report the amount of recycled content in products while keeping materials out of landfills or incinerators. In addition, producing mass-balanced materials can be done in existing manufacturing systems and helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The healthcare industry will continue to face sustainability challenges. When sustainable materials are used in medical textiles, it can help address this challenge. More than 12,000 metric tons of Arnitel have been produced for use in 200 million medical gowns that, if free of noninfectious medical waste, can be recycled and help achieve healthcare facility sustainability goals.
DSM continues to be on the forefront of developing more sustainable material solutions. Alternative routes being explored are single-material solutions (e.g., 100% polyester-based) that can be more easily recycled compared to current composite materials (e.g., Polyolefin-Urethane-Polyester) used in the industry.