Medical gear made circular

Repola is the service for circular, disposable medical products made from four different PLA plastic blends. The blends are tailored for patient care, textiles for surgical use, plastic for disposable cutlery such as forceps, scalpels and disposable scissors, and for use as packaging.
The different types of plastics are divided by colour and will be collected in separate collection containers which are placed at defined locations in the clinic. Since a purity of 95% is required for the subsequent solvent based recycling process, the clinics are rewarded with financial incentives for correctly separating the plastics. In this way, the technical challenges in the solvent based recycling can be combined with efforts to reduce waste and cut costs in medical facilities. Within the solvent based recycling of the four individual PLA blends these can be broken down again into their starting materials PLA and additives.

video of Anselm’s presentation
student:Anselm Wohlfahrt
project:full circle
examined bioplastic:

polylactic acid
material expert support:

Dr. Stephan Kabasci
Dr. Philip Mörbitz
Fraunhofer UMSICHT

full concept text

Starting point of the Repola concept is the huge amount of medical waste. In Germany alone, approximately 5 million tons of hospital waste are generated every year. The enormous cost pressure on hospitals and high sterility requirements, among other things, have led to a switch from reusable to disposable products in many areas.

At the moment, approximately 66 percent of medical waste is plastic. Plastic appears in form of disposable textiles for patient care, textiles for surgical supplies, diapers, packaging, blister packs, bladder-, urinary- and cardiac catheters, and many other disposable products.
Repola is the service for circular, single-use medical products made of PLA and thus an alternative to the established take-make-dispose products.
PLA, the main material used by Repola for their products, is a bioplastic made out of lactic acid.

For the service, PLA is to be produced from lactic acid from algae. At this point, it can be assumed that algae in closed, artificial algae farms will be an alternative to the production of PLA from agricultural sources in the future. This may avoid additional land grabbing for PLA production.

The blends are tailored for A patient care, B textiles for surgical use, C plastics for disposable surgical cutlery, such as tweezers, scalpels and scissors, and for D packaging. Additives used in the individual compounds include for example silver particles to provide an antibacterial effect.

Each plastic has a different colour and is collected in the hospital in plastic-specific collection containers owned by Repola which are conveniently placed throughout the medical facilities. While plastics B and C are each collected separately, plastic mixtures A and D can be discarded together into one container. Plastic A is additivated so that it has water-absorbing properties and thus can be used in products such as disposable towels, incontinence mats, washcloths, or the like. Plastic B is provided with hydrophobic properties, as it requires rather moisture-repellent properties in the application as surgical textile. Products made from this plastic include drapes, gowns, surgical table covers, and hoods or gauntlets. PLA textiles A and B are manufactured using the melt blow process to reduce manufacturing costs.

In addition, by using thermoplastic, non-woven PLA textile, the individual parts of the surgical gown can be joined together almost exclusively with welded seams. Plastic B is primarily designed for disposable surgical cutlery and is used for scalpels, scissors, tweezers or similar. Plastic B products have metal parts which are over-moulded by plastic due to their design. Plastic D is designed as a packaging material for a wide range of applications. After the waste is collected in Repola’s own collection containers, it is picked up by Repola and sent to a solvent based recycling process.
Within the recycling process, there is a separate recycling process for each plastic. When plastics A and D are collected together, they are each sent to a separate process after being separated from each other.
After the separation from foreign materials, the plastics are cleaned, individually shredded and, if necessary, separated from metal parts. Then the compounds are separated into their starting materials: PLA and additives. In the process, organic contaminants are destroyed or dissolved without leaving any residues. This process of solvent-based recycling was developed by CreaSolv and the Fraunhofer IVV.

So far, as material consumption in hospitals is not linear, there is no existing data about the consumption of individual products within individual medical facilities or individual wards. A tracking of the circulating materials is intended to record the material consumption and material loss within the system. As Repola is using plastics of a higher quality than comparable suppliers of disposable products, the service has a considerable interest in ensuring that as much material as possible is returned to the cycle. In addition, for solvent-based recycling a purity grade of 95% is optimal.

Therefore the Repola service will become cheaper for the hospital, if they have a low material loss and well sorted disposal. By offering this financial incentive, the hospitals are encouraged to conscientiously separate and dispose the plastics in the Repola collection system. In this way, the goal of waste prevention and cost reduction in the facilities can be combined with the technical challenges of Repola.