In the pursuit of sustainability, the debate between paper and plastic has permeated across various industries. While the world grapples with environmental concerns, the healthcare sector, in particular, is under scrutiny for its use of single use plastic in medical devices. Notably, the NHS creates 133,000 tonnes of plastic annually with only 5% of it being recyclable.

In October 2022, the NHS committed to delivering a net zero nation health system. However, realising this vision comes with immense challenges and concurrently, opportunities. One such opportunity is to re-evaluate the materials we use in the development of medical devices. Given the exciting and ever-advancing paper substrate manufacturing industry, could we aid the cause by choosing paper over plastic?

Unwrapping the Potential of Paper

The first step in evaluating the feasibility of a paper over plastic is to understand the existing paper manufacturing technologies and how they could be adapted to meet the stringent requirements of the healthcare industry. Paper injection moulding, for instance, utilises paper pulp as a raw material to create biodegradable three-dimensional moulded components, and could prove a sustainable alternative for certain plastic components.

There is also a plethora of paper compression moulders available. One such company, Sweden based Papershell, transforms paper into advanced cellulose composites, which boast impressive material properties rivalling many of the other material groups, and remain inherently sustainable due to their 100% bio content amongst other factors.

Coming from a slightly different angle, the collaboration between Syntegon and Huhtamaki has yielded a paper suitable for use in blister packs, as a sustainable alternative to aluminium / PVC versions. The Push Tab® paper comprises multiple layers, including a barrier coating to ensuring the protection of blister pack contents.

Paper manufacturing has witnessed substantial progress, enabled by modern technologies that facilitate the production of robust, reliable paper materials. The continuous innovations in paper engineering present opportunities which may challenge the conventional use of plastic components, in certain scenarios.

Navigating the Risks

At the core of medical device development is risk management. Its important to note that whilst paper presents itself as a sustainable alternative, we also must acknowledge and address the potential risks and challenges associated with its use in medical devices. For example, biocompatibility could be a risk that prevents paper being used for a specific device or component, as if not properly treated or coated, it may induce immune responses, inflammation, or other adverse reactions. There are also concerns around sterilisation, given that paper would be an inherently more difficult material to effectively sterilise whilst maintaining structural integrity and functionality. A whole host of other risks would also need to be addressed, including performance properties, environmental compatibility, moisture sensitivity, chemical interactions and of course, the material must adhere to the appropriate regulatory standards. Ultimately, the application of paper substrate materials would need to be strategic, and thoroughly risk assessed.

Environmental and sustainable graphic

The Evolution of Plastics

Plastic stands out as one of the rare materials versatile enough to adapt to the dynamic nature of the healthcare industry. Its sterility, quality, durability, and ability to be designed to be safe are the reasons for this. In recent years, plastic manufacturing has undergone transformative changes, fuelled by a collective commitment to sustainability. China’s ban on plastic scrap imports in 2017 fortunately spurred governments and recycling companies into finding solutions to the growing stockpiles of plastics and has ultimately led to an acceleration in developing upstream and downstream recycling technologies. This has created a number of opportunities and ultimately made sustainable plastics more feasible for use in healthcare products.

One promising application for recycled plastic is in non-sterile packaging and products. For example, medical trays, sharps bins or commodes which do not need to be sterile and therefore not subject to the more stringent requirements preventing the use of recycled resins.

There are also advancements on the horizon with chemical recycling, which could allow of types of plastic waste to be recycled without the degradation of their mechanical properties. Traditional mechanical methods of recycling plastic waste are finite as ultimately the plastic degrades beyond the point in which it can be reused. Chemically recycling plastics could open up opportunities for them to be used in the same application as virgin polymers.

The ongoing investments in plastic recycling are yielding tangible advancements. By sustaining this trajectory, we pave the way for an unperturbed and promising future for plastics within the greener healthcare systems of tomorrow.

Striking a Balance: Embracing Paper on the Path to Net Zero

While plastic continues to play a vital role in medical devices, it is evident that the industry is, at present, in need of more sustainable alternatives. Paper, with its advancements in manufacturing technologies, presents itself as a contender in the race towards achieving net-zero environmental impact. Striking a balance between the benefits of plastic and the eco-friendly potential of paper is crucial for creating a sustainable future for medical device manufacturing.

The journey towards sustainable healthcare practices requires a thoughtful and collaborative effort from manufacturers, healthcare professionals, and consumers alike. As we explore alternative materials like paper, it is essential to approach the transition with a clear understanding of the risks, benefits, and the collective responsibility we bear in building a healthier planet. It’s highly unlikely that paper will replace plastic, but its integration into our industry could certainly contribute to a more sustainable and environmentally conscious future.

Luke Brown - Design development Engineer at Haughton Design Luke Brown 28 March 2024

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Get in Touch with Luke Brown

Design Development Engineer

Luke graduated from Staffordshire University with a degree in Product Design and has since developed a broad range of skills from working in the HVAC & refrigeration industries to designing for sheet metal & fabrication. Luke has a keen interest in FEA and 3D CAD modelling as well as a strong knowledge of standards and patents – he is keen to contribute this experience to HD. Outside of work, Luke enjoys being creative be it through music or home improvements.

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