From the 400 million tonnes of plastic that is manufactured, only 18% is recycled. 90 million tonnes breaks down to microplastics and these are the microparticles that currently cause huge environmental damage as they find their way into the oceans.
Plastics are a combination of polymers that are bonded together – 90% of plastics are derived from fossil fuels, such as oil. It is estimated that 4-8% of the world’s oil supply is used for plastics. This is forecast to increase to 20% by 2050, provided the current trend continues. Oil based plastics are durable, versatile, and cheap to produce, hence their attraction and growth profile.
Almost 80% of the total amount of plastic produced is dumped in landfill sites or incinerated, rather than being recycled. 8 million tonnes of plastic finds its way into oceans every year, breaking down into microplastics and causing damage to coral reefs and other ecological sites. Single use plastics make up almost half of all marine pollutants, and the major user of these is within the medical sector.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has determined that each hospital bed, per year, generates just over 27 kilograms of medical plastic waste. That is unsustainable and the drive to find alternative biodegradable products is a focus in order to reduce the environmental impact.
For over half a century, significant amounts of research have been conducted into biodegradable polymers for medical applications. These plastics are effective in producing drug delivery systems, implants and for tissue engineering on a molecular level.
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is the most commonly used material in the manufacturing of fossil-based medical plastics. It is thermoplastic material, extremely durable, that is commonly used in the production of pre-sterilized single-used supplies, such as syringes.
The single-use plastic product market is huge, leading to this being one of the leading sectors for healthcare product disposal. In recent years, there has been an increase in the demand for eco-friendly, bio-degradable medical plastics in an attempt to address a growing pollution problem.
The market for biodegradable, eco-friendly medical plastics is dominated by those manufactured using plant-based elements, particularly hemp, sugar cane, fruit skins, vegetable, starch, and woodchips. Polylactic Acid (PLA) is a commonly used compound used in the production of these supplies, along with Polyglolic Acid (PGA) and Poly-Caprolacetone (PCL). These materials, whilst more sustainable, come with an added cost, making biodegradable medical plastics less viable in those developing nations where cost is an over-riding factor.
North America has been the largest adopter of the bio-degradable medical plastics, followed by Europe and the Asia Pacific regions. South America is still a slowly developing adopter of these environmentally friendly plastics.
Globally, the biodegradable plastic market is forecast to grow by over $197M over the next three years. This growth is likely to see an equalization of the user market at the top end of the adopter league for use of these medical supplies. It is expected that the Middle East and Africa will begin to increase their use of these supplies in line with WHO recommendations.
Scientists believe that biodegradable medical plastics could have a wider role to play in the sector. Already used for drug delivery systems, medicine transport to precise points on and in the body, the potential for the use of these non-toxic plastics has yet to be realized fully.
Within the arena of medical implants, surgeons continue to look for biodegradable components which will not require a second stage of surgery to remove. Currently, non-biodegradable components must be removed and then disposed of, adding to the problem of pollution. There is a secondary risk of damage to an area of the patient, and also introduction of bacteria and infection. Using biodegradable components would allow these implants to degrade naturally at a stable rate, increasing recovery success and passing out the body as natural waste.
These components are a game-changer for doctors and patients. The material used is sustainable, degradable, and efficient. They are non-toxic and are targetable within the body, allowing precise application. They may also open pathways to complex areas of the body that surgery can damage, such as brain or colon.
Whilst there are clearly benefits, the main issue is cost – until a reduction in price is achieved, these products will remain out of the reach of the poorer, developing nations and their hospitals and medical systems. Whilst this sector is anticipated to see growth, fossil fuel based medical plastics will continue to dominate the market for between 5 and 10 years.