Suppliers Aim to Renew OEMs' Interest in Eco-Friendly Plastics

Author: 
Shana Leonard
'Green' plastics that contain renewable or recycled content are working their way into medical products and packaging

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The ‘three Rs’ of waste hierarchy—reduce, reuse, recycle—have been drilled into the minds of community members and school children alike and, in turn, created a rapidly expanding environmentally conscience consumer base. Consequently, many manufacturers of consumer products and packaging have indulged the public’s demand for “greener” materials by incorporating biodegradable, biobased, or recycled plastics into their designs.

This hasn’t been the case for the medical device industry, however. Cost concerns, regulatory wariness, minimal selection, and a lack of strong demand from end-users have deterred medical device OEMs from pursuing the use of more environmentally friendly plastics. Seeking to spur change, some suppliers to the industry are paving the way for a sustainable switch in materials as they begin to offer eco-friendly options for plastic medical applications.

Sowing the Seeds

Hybrid plastic resins produced by Cereplast feature up to 50% renewable content and can be used in dental applications.
Derived from renewable natural resources, biobased plastics, or bioplastics, could play a role in future medical product design. The global demand for bioplastics, after all, is predicted to quadruple to 900,000 metric tons in 2013 and will be valued at $2.6 billion, according to a 2009 report issued by the Freedonia Group. It also states that biodegradable plastics, such as starch-based resins, degradable polyesters, and polylactic acid (PLA) accounted for almost 90% of bioplastics demand in 2008. PLA, which is created from starches such as corn or sugar, is one of the few bioplastics that has made the leap into medical products. Suited for use in drug-delivery applications and bioresorbable implants, the material degrades inside the body and, thus, is environmentally friendly.

Despite PLA’s ability to degrade in the body, environmentalists are perhaps more concerned about the impact of the large quantities of single-use plastic products and disposable medical packaging produced by the industry. Bioplastics could present a viable alternative for these types of products, says Frederic Scheer, founder, chairman, and CEO of resin manufacturer Cereplast (Hawthorne, CA; www.cereplast.com). In addition to his role at Cereplast, Scheer serves as chairman emeritus of the Biodegradable Products Institute, which he established, and was recently selected as the 2010 bioplastics council chair by the Society of the Plastics Industry Bioplastics Council.

Cereplast supplies hybrid plastic resins composed of traditional polyolefins that are injected with up to 50% renewable content. Renewable content consists of starch-based plastics formed from corn, potatoes, rice, and tapioca, for example. The FDA-approved material also features thermal and physical properties comparable to those of traditional fossil-fuel-based resins, according to Scheer.

Although the bioplastic has not yet been employed in a medical product, it has replaced polypropylene in several dental applications, including a device for taking dental imprints. “We’re not selling products that will be inserted in human bodies, [but] a lot of the current polyolefins that are used in medical applications could be [replaced] by our resins,” Scheer speculates. He cites potential applications for the resins in single-use devices such as syringes as well as various medical supplies, gloves, and apparel.

“In the months and years to come, you will see more and more regulation and legislation pushing toward the use of bioplastics in a lot of different applications,” Scheer says. “You have directives that have been endorsed by the [current] administration by which all federal agencies will have to buy bioplastic and biobased materials. I think that in 2010, 2011, and thereafter, you will see a transition and you will see more and more applications in the medical and dental industries.”.

Leading the Pack

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Placon recycles PET water bottles, converts them into extruded sheets of RPET, and ultimately uses the material for secondary medical packaging applications.
Although various issues have impeded the integration of eco-friendly plastics into medical device applications, some medical packaging manufacturers have been proactive in their efforts to offset the impact of their plastic products. Regardless of, or perhaps because of, the negative stigma attached to single-use plastic packaging in regards to the environment, many package providers preach sustainability—and they practice what they preach to the best of their ability. “Every piece of plastic that comes through our doors either becomes packaging or is recycled,” medical packaging provider Brookdale Plastics (Plymouth, MN; www.brookdaleplastics.com) proclaims on its Web site.

Recycling is a key component in the drive for more-sustainable packaging options, most notably in the reprocessing of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Recycled polyethylene terephthalate (RPET) is produced by converting used plastic water bottles into extruded sheets, and eventually, to finished medical packaging. The material is primarily employed in secondary medical packaging applications where the primary package is responsible for ensuring sterility.

Thermoformed packaging supplier Placon Corp. (Madison, WI; www.placon.com), which considers itself a pioneer in RPET packaging, has been turning wasted water bottles into wanted sustainable packaging for more than 15 years. “We started using recycled content in the early 1990s and have continued and grown stronger in our abilities to manufacture packaging that could have otherwise ended up in the landfill,” says Jennifer Mitchell, the company’s marketing communications manager. “In 2003, we started tracking the number of bottles we have converted: We are now over one billion, and it continues to grow daily.”

Optimizing its RPET specifically for medical packaging, Placon launched the EcoStar PET family of products last year. Suitable for use in clamshells, in-process trays, and glucose meter packaging, among other applications, EcoStar PC50 products are composed of at least 50% postconsumer content, according to the company. Furthermore, they consist of 85% total recycled content, which encompasses both postconsumer and postindustrial materials.

Packages engineered from HS1000, on the other hand, have a minimum of 35% postconsumer content. A multilayer material, HS1000 features one layer for heat sealing and an internal layer made from recycled content, according to Mitchell. “HS1000 is a great option for medical customers who currently use form-fill-seal applications in-house,” she enthuses. “Customers use this material on their lines to package items such as syringes [and] can use any material to seal to the HS1000, such as film or paper lid stock.”

But the EcoStar line offers advantages beyond the use of recycled materials, according to Placon. The RPET family is characterized by clarity and high impact strength. Moreover, it can be more cost-effective than most green materials. Replacing PVC and PET, respectively, HS1000 and PC50 are typically less expensive than their virgin counterparts, Mitchell says.

“We have worked with companies whenever possible to use recycled content in packaging, and they like the added cost savings as well as the story they can tell,” Mitchell observes. “It currently isn’t possible for every application, but we offer this option whenever it works.”

For more articles and information on sustainable manufacturing and green materials, go to devicelink.com/mpmn/green