Life in Plastic: Medical Plastics, Sustainability, and the Pandemic

medications in a plastic container

Medical plastics are vital parts of the healthcare industry. The presence of plastic can be found everywhere, dominating everyone’s daily lives. It’s in the car they drive, their computer’s components, and the credit cards they use for payments.

More than this, plastics helped revolutionize one of the most important sectors of society: medicine. Plastics continue to serve as critical elements in medical devices. However, it also comes with its fair share of disadvantages.

It is a known fact that plastics make up a significant part of the world’s pollutants contributing to the ongoing climate. In the face of a global pandemic, plastic pollution from medical facilities has drastically increased. Some medical practitioners hope to use the current crisis to help reduce the plastic waste that their industry produces.

The Relevance of Medical Plastics

Generally, plastics are made from raw materials, particularly natural gas and crude oil. These raw materials are then refined to create different polymers for various uses. In a way, it can conclude that companies that invest in oil and medical facilities work hand-in-hand when it comes to saving people’s lives.

Medical devices have existed for thousands of years. Various materials have been tested through decades, from metal to ceramics. The constant demand for innovation within the industry eventually led to plastics becoming the predominant material for medical instruments. These are the primary reasons why plastic was widely adopted to transform the healthcare industry.

Limitless Possibilities

Plastics are far more superior than older materials, like metal and ceramics, in terms of versatility. There are endless shapes and products that plastics can be formed into. While other materials can prove to be durable, their rigidity greatly inhibits their design possibilities.

Syringes, IV bags, medical tubing, and catheters are just some examples of the extensive array of medical equipment that plastics can be shaped into. Moreover, medical plastic technology continues to evolve, leading to more innovations in the future.

Guaranteed Sanitation

Plastic medical devices are widely used for their ease of sterilization and disposal. Before adopting plastic in medicine, one of the biggest challenges in healthcare was the prevention of cross-contamination. Medical instruments were usually designed to be multi-use, posing countless hazards.

As infectious diseases increased around the world, the need for sterile and single-use plastics followed. Plastic equipment was also found to be more compatible with current sterilization methods, like gamma radiation. This meant that plastic medical devices were easily sealed, sterilized, and disposed of after use.

Economical Solution

Finally, medical instruments made of plastic are much easier to mass-produced at a low cost compared to other materials. Ease of processing plays a huge part in supplying multiple medical facilities to ensure that they don’t run out of equipment.

Plastic is also significantly lighter than metals and ceramics, greatly reducing transportation costs. With the increase in demand, especially during a global pandemic, accessibility and affordability play crucial roles.

plastic syringe

The Sustainability Dilemma

Due to the widespread utilization of single-use plastics in medical facilities across the world, the healthcare industry’s sustainability comes into question. Their environmental impact is not something environmental advocates can easily overlook.

The healthcare industry’s carbon emissions alone can be equated to 4.4% of global net emissions. A great majority of this figure lies in their energy use, like electricity and operational emissions. Coupled with the drastic increase in single-use plastics due to the global pandemic, it’s hard not to notice the industry’s massive footprint.

However, most medical practitioners argue that addressing sustainability is not necessarily a priority on their list. When put up against guaranteeing a patient’s health and safety, striving to become environmentally friendly ends up being a trivial choice.

A Change in Perspective

Nonetheless, other medical professionals are using the current crisis to challenge assumptions regarding medical wastes. In the face of a global pandemic, there is obviously a legitimate need for single-use plastics to prevent infectious diseases from spreading. Safely disposing of hazardous materials, like personal protective equipment (PPE), is essential.

Within the context of COVID-19, however, it’s been observed that only 15% of healthcare waste can actually be classified as hazardous. The other 85% of medical waste that remains non-hazardous is where the healthcare industry can greatly reduce its environmental impact. These wastes are similar to household waste like packaging materials or gloves used on a non-infectious patient.

While it’s true that single-use equipment is perceived to be safer, the responsibility to maintain a cleaner environment still falls on everyone. Before the adoption of plastic, medical instruments were routinely cleaned, sterilized, and reused until they showed signs of wear and tear. New technologies in medical plastics, like biodegradable polymers, are also constantly evolving to address this issue.

The Future of Medical Plastics

In the end, plastics play a vital role in saving people’s lives daily. It greatly shaped how modern medicine is being practiced today. However, it’s also important to understand its underlying effects on the environment.

Fortunately, countless professionals within the field are slowly reforming medical practices to address the growing issue of sustainability. The current pandemic has served as an important platform to highlight this problem. Coupled with innovations in medical plastic technology, the healthcare industry is making significant strides to become more environmentally conscious.

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