Patients are likely to notice the noise and size of a magnetic imaging machine (MRI), but not the plastics that are vital to its operation. For well over 70 years, plastics have become the dominant material in the medical field for patient care, innovation, safety and affordability. Different medical procedures and treatments require different types of materials. So suggesting the use of one material rather than another—without understanding how each specific material is chosen in each specific medical application—does a disservice to patients and to the healthcare sector as a whole.
There are reasons why a specific material is used in certain healthcare applications. The task of healthcare workers—particularly during emergency situations—is to save a patient’s life.
We were approached by a reporter from National Geographic to comment on ways plastic use in hospitals can be reduced. The answer is quite simple: medical professionals choose the material that works best for each patients’ needs.
The first thing that came to mind when we received the inquiry about medical plastics was the thought of young children with asthma going to school every day with their bronchodilators made of multiple materials: aluminum and plastics. Can we take the bronchodilators away because it contains plastic? Would we replace them with glass? A glass syringe containing life-saving medication—when dropped by a school nurse, breaking and spilling the medication in such a way that it is gone forever—could be the difference between life and death. That’s why plastic syringes are now preferred over glass syringes.
When medical supplies have contact with patients and healthcare workers, they need to be sterile and cannot be reused on another patient in order to prevent the spread of infection. Thanks to sanitary medical supplies, we have better ways of handling infectious diseases today than we did 75 years ago. In the healthcare industry, personal protection equipment, known as PPE, is necessary. PPE encompasses protective clothing, helmets, gloves, face shields, goggles, facemasks and/or respirators or other equipment to protect employees in healthcare from injury or spreading infection or illness. All this equipment is made from plastic materials.
There is a reason why plastics are abundant in healthcare. Take blood bags for example. In 1960, a study showed that “the rate of haemolysis is far more rapid when the blood is stored in glass than in plastic containers.” Haemolysis, by the way, is the rupture or destruction of red blood cells. Should the Red Cross start giving blood donors a choice as to whether the blood they donate should be stored in glass or plastic? Ask a doctor if they would like to use blood stored in glass and they’ll tell you that, in addition to other complications, it would certainly make the infusion process difficult.
In addition, PVC (vinyl) is essential to patient and healthcare worker safety and has been used in the medical world for more than 50 years. It is used to make IV tubing and blood bags, both of which are essential to providing safe medical care because this material provides a stable, inert film that prevents it from easily tearing during use and transport.
Healthcare facilities in the United States generate approximately 14,000 tons of waste per day, most of which is being disposed of in landfills or by energy recovery technologies. We work with the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC) to pioneer projects designed to boost plastics recycling efforts in clinical settings of hospitals.
In our most recent Plastics Market Watch, Watching: Plastics’ Contribution to Healthcare, we took a deep dive into how the entire plastics value chain works to improve the quality of healthcare for patients, saves and extends people’s lives, combats infections and contributes to the design and function of medical devices. To learn more, download the full report here.
Removing plastics from healthcare would put patients and healthcare professionals at risk. Currently, plastic is the best material in terms of cost-performance ratio for the healthcare industry, but also, it bears repeating, it enables the provision of the safest, fastest medical care available today. Healthcare costs would be higher if plastics were excluded from healthcare. Infections would be more common and more difficult to prevent. There are economic, environmental and scientific reasons why plastics are in medicine and healthcare today, but the most important might be the moral reason: plastics save lives.
1 Loiselle, JM. & Hudson, F. Can. Anaes. Soc. J. (1960) 7: 61. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03013685 The preservation of human blood in glass and plastic containers: an invitro evaluation