Healing the Planet: Embracing Compostable Textiles in the Medical Field

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In recent years, sustainability has become an increasingly integral consideration across industries worldwide, and the medical sector is no exception. One notable advancement in this realm is the emergence of compostable textiles, which are revolutionizing the way medical facilities manage waste and reduce their environmental footprint. 

Table of Contents

Introduction  

The use of medical personal protective equipment (PPE) has increased dramatically all around the world as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Littering is an issue because of the single-use nature of these products and their exponential demand.  

Furthermore, the majority of these products are composed of plastics (such as polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate), which is why they are becoming a problem. 

Glove-related littering grew from 0.2% to 2.4%, while wipe-related waste increased from 0.2% to 0.6%. Mask-related waste changed the most since the pandemic, increasing by an astounding 84 times.  

The medical industry is focusing more on compostable fabrics in an effort to address this issue.  

These textiles support society’s sustainability objectives and are simple to discard after use without harming the environment. For this reason, biodegradable fabrics are quite helpful in medical settings. 

Governments all across the world, including those in the UK, the USA, Japan, and other countries, have launched programs (financing, marketing, etc.) to draw attention to compostable PPE kits.  

To manufacture disposable surgical masks and respirators that are compostable for use by healthcare workers, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) is working with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), Health Canada (HC), and Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) to find solutions. 

Understanding Compostable Textiles: Materials and Properties 

Traditionally, the medical industry has been associated with significant waste generation, including single-use items such as gowns, drapes, and bed linens. These disposable textiles, often made from synthetic materials like polypropylene and polyester, contribute to landfill accumulation and environmental degradation due to their non-biodegradable nature.  

However, the adoption of compostable textiles presents a promising solution to this pressing issue. 

Compostable textiles are derived from natural fibers such as cotton, bamboo, and hemp, or innovative materials like polylactic acid (PLA) derived from renewable resources like cornstarch.  

Unlike their synthetic counterparts, these materials can break down into organic matter when subjected to the conditions of a composting facility, returning nutrients to the soil and closing the loop on the production cycle. 

Applications in Medical Settings 

One of the primary applications of compostable textiles in the medical industry is in surgical settings. Surgical gowns and drapes made from compostable materials offer the same level of protection and barrier properties as conventional options while significantly reducing the environmental impact.  

After use, these textiles can be collected along with other organic waste and processed in commercial composting facilities, where they decompose into nutrient-rich compost within a matter of weeks. 

Furthermore, compostable textiles extend beyond surgical attire to encompass a range of medical products, including wound dressings, bandages, and even disposable bedding for patient care. By integrating compostable alternatives into everyday medical practices, healthcare facilities can minimize their reliance on non-renewable resources and mitigate their contribution to landfill waste. 

Advantages of Compostable Textiles 

The transition to compostable textiles also aligns with the growing emphasis on corporate social responsibility within the healthcare sector. Hospitals and healthcare organizations are increasingly recognizing the importance of adopting sustainable practices to uphold their commitment to patient well-being and environmental stewardship.  

By embracing compostable textiles, these institutions can demonstrate their dedication to both patient care and planetary health. 

Moreover, the adoption of compostable textiles presents economic benefits for healthcare facilities in the long term. While the upfront costs of transitioning to sustainable alternatives may be higher initially, the potential savings from reduced waste disposal fees and improved environmental credentials can outweigh these expenses over time.  

Additionally, as consumer demand for eco-friendly healthcare products continues to rise, investing in sustainable solutions can enhance the reputation and appeal of medical institutions.  

Challenges and Solutions 

Despite the numerous advantages of compostable textiles, challenges remain in widespread adoption and implementation. Issues such as cost considerations, regulatory compliance, and infrastructure limitations pose barriers to full-scale integration within the medical industry.  

However, ongoing research and innovation in materials science, coupled with supportive policies and initiatives, are driving progress toward a more sustainable future for healthcare. 

Recent advances in biodegradable medical fabrics 

I) Medical apparel made of biodegradable materials with enhanced mechanical qualities 

A sophisticated material supplier with headquarters in China, Guangdong Kingfa Science and Technology Co Ltd, is creating a medical apparel kit that is biodegradable. The same patent application, CN114633535A, has been filed by the corporation in China. 

A biodegradable film is used for the exterior layer, all-cotton spun lace is used for the inner layer, and a water-soluble adhesive is sandwiched between the two layers to create the garment material. Polyglycolic acid, butylene terephthalate, and polybutylene succinate make up this biodegradable film.  

These substances provide the clothes its mechanical qualities, softness, and biodegradability. The company has also looked into adding polybutylene adipate and succinate to increase the water vapor barrier characteristics of this film. 

II) Transforming medical waste made of PPE into petroleum products: 

Cornell University began developing a PPE processing system for used PPE kits in 2022. The primary goal of this research is to recover PPE medical waste by “pyrolysis” and return it to a chemical state (like petroleum). After that, the crude petroleum is recycled into several fuel types that are reusable. 

Compared to the incineration process, the proposed PPE processing method decreases 35.04% of total greenhouse gas emissions and 31.5% of total fossil fuel use. Additionally, it avoids the cremation and landfilling processes, which account for 41.52% and 47.64% of total natural land occupation. 

Prospects for Compostable Medical Textiles in the Future 

Many developments are now being developed with the goal of incorporating composability into medical fabrics. But they are few (even if governments, organizations, hospitals, etc. consistently support the market for these fabrics).  

Since 2018, fewer than 500 research papers have been published, and fewer than 1000 patent applications have been made. 

This could be due, in part, to the fact that financing for these advances is very new. As a matter of fact, it has been increasingly evident over the past two years that the majority of companies and institutions were able to get funding beyond 2021. 

Conclusion  

In conclusion, compostable textiles represent a significant step forward in promoting sustainability within the medical industry. By harnessing the power of natural and renewable materials, healthcare facilities can reduce their environmental footprint, enhance patient care, and contribute to a healthier planet.  

As the momentum behind eco-conscious practices continues to grow, compostable textiles stand poised to redefine the standard of care in healthcare settings worldwide. 

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