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How Plastics Balance Safety and Sustainability for Public Health

Plastics are, and will continue to be, critical to public safety and efficient public health operations. This has become even clearer during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Health care facilities have long protected patients and frontline workers by relying on disposable face masks, face shields, gloves and hospital gowns—all of which are made from plastic. Sterile plastic packaging also enables the safe delivery of those supplies and medical tools to and within hospitals.

Today, the importance of plastics to health care workers and patients alike has become more prominent as countries work to distribute COVID-19 vaccines. Notably, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines used in the United States and elsewhere only work if kept at very cold temperatures. Innovative plastics such as expanded polystyrene—more commonly known by the brand Styrofoam –solve these challenges and ensure vaccines are safely delivered to patients.

Vital packaging solutions like this should enjoy a protected status as life-saving, essential innovations. However, just as the FDA approved the first COVID-19 vaccine in the United States and shipments were readied, state legislation in New Jersey was advancing to ban the same material as what would wrap the vaccine.  Increased regulations like this on necessary plastic packaging solutions are short-sighted and could restrict patient access and hurt public health initiatives.

Plastics remain an integral part of safe and sterile health care environments apart from their use in transporting and administering the COVID-19 vaccine and other medications. Their versatility and affordability allows plastics to serve countless purposes that enable endless medical innovation. For example, the transition of the plastic blood bag from the traditional glass option now allows drones to deliver blood to remote areas with a lower risk of contamination or content loss. From the single-use gloves that increase hygiene to the plastic computer parts that make recording patient data easier and more efficient, plastics are essential to medical professionals.

Sterile Products and Surfaces

Personal protective equipment (PPE) and vinyl surfaces have for many years supported medical professionals in their efforts to treat patients without spreading disease. PPE made from lightweight plastics, like gloves, masks, and hospital gowns, are just a few products that are essential to making medical spaces safer.

PPE has now become a necessity outside the medical world, keeping all Americans safe. Affordable gloves and masks deliver a sterile product, enhanced safety, and comfort to users as they shop at the grocery store or pick up prescriptions from the pharmacy.

Vinyl (polyvinyl chloride), a plastic polymer, boasts hygienic properties that help keep surfaces clean and hospital environments safe even without constant cleaning. According to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, the polymer helps prevent unnecessary infections and deaths due to hospital exposure and infection.

Just as health care workers are essential, so is the versatile material that provides them with safety as they do their life-saving jobs. Overzealous regulations that restrict use of this essential material do more harm than good.

Packaging & Devices

Historically, medical devices were made of glass, metal, or ceramics, and were designed for multi-use purposes. However, cross contamination led to increased infections due to challenges with sterilization. With the advent of plastics-based products in the 1960s, specific use items were able to stem growing safety challenges and keep hospitals and those working within them safer.

Many of these now-commonplace plastic medical products are easily recycled, cutting down on waste. PVC medical tubing, for example, which is used to draw blood, administer drugs, and provide patients with oxygen, can be easily recycled into new products.

Using plastics as an alternative to glass and metal also reduces costs for hospitals and thus for patients. Affordability, in addition to versatility, has played a large role in increasing health care access around the world.

Recycling and Waste Management

While innovative medical solutions have made it easier to keep patients and health professionals safer, increased reliance on single-use plastic products has created some challenges. However, hospitals and clinics are dedicated to solving this problem through recycling partnerships.

Organizations like the Cleveland Clinic collect and separate medical waste so it can be reused or recycled at respective facilities. Other groups, like Partners for World Health (PWH) and HospiCycle, ensure that hospital products otherwise destined for the landfill are recovered and sterilized by a third-party company, like PWH, so they can be reused.

Hospitals are also doing their part by choosing more durable plastics that can be sterilized and reused because they do not crack or degrade over time and can remain safe through cleaning and reuse. Some facilities are working to reduce waste by better managing inventory or are opting for single item packages instead of bundled items that cannot be reused once packages are opened. Sustainability efforts like these are key to the success of hospitals and COVID-19 has made this even clearer.

While plastics are as essential as health care workers, proper waste management techniques are also essential to keeping the health care space sustainable and safe. This is the solution to waste challenges, not bans that will restrict access to safe and essential products.

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