Single Use Plastics in the Medical Industry

Group 68

Plastic’s availability, cost-effectiveness and sterile nature make it a material of widespread importance within the medical industry. However, many plastic items such as IV drips, syringes and bandages must be disposed of after a single use due to the inability of the plastic to be adequately disinfected. This incurs a huge cost on society, both economically and environmentally. In addition, other suitable materials choices are sparse, with few offering the inherent number of advantages of plastic. Is the use of plastics in the medical industry unavoidable, or is there a way around it?

FOR Single Use Plastics in the Medical Industry

Prevent Spread of Infections

According to the Kantian theory, one’s actions led by good intentions determines one’s moral worth. Therefore, it is morally right and acceptable to use and produce single-use plastics as they were developed with good intentions to benefit the public.

Single use medical plastics provide vital benefit to the consumers and the society by preventing the spread of contagious, possibly deadly infectious diseases. Medical equipment such as syringes, drug tests, bandages, gloves (all of which are single-use) are a necessity to prevent contamination when doctors or nurses are dealing with their patient’s blood. Using glass or metal instead of plastic is often suggested, however, it causes challenges regarding the inability to decontaminate and transport, as well as its availability.

Recycling of plastic materials from medical devices is not possible due to the risk of infection. For destruction of medical devices, incineration or disposal is preferred. As the sector comes under more scrutiny, the industry is seeking new ways to meet environmental requirements. This involves looking at the plastics being used. The most common plastic used is PVC it is used in packaging and medical devices such as hydrophilic urinary catheters.  A study showed that using a polyolefin-based elastomer gives an overall better environmental performance than PVC and other existing plastics in terms of energy resources used in production and emissions such as CO2, NOx and SO2 released during incineration. This proposes that the industry does not have to abandon plastic products, rather change the plastics used, maintaining the benefits of a plastic product whilst also reducing the environmental consequences of disposing in landfill or incinerating.

Economical Advantages

Due to the requirement of the material to be completely sterile, there are lack of suitable alternatives for use in the medical industry. Such alternatives include glass and stainless steel, which, when compared to plastic, have much higher manufacturing costs. Thus, plastic allows the hospitals to reduce costs, thus reducing the overall cost of operation, which directly benefits both the government (in the UK case) and the patient in private healthcare countries.

However, the economic advantage does not only benefit the hospitals, it also provides the large plastic producers such as ExxonMobil and DOW chemicals a much greater source of revenue. From their standpoint, single use plastics are beneficial because each use will mean the hospitals’ having to purchase more equipment. This further provides a justification for the use of single-use plastics, especially from a utilitarianism standpoint as it is in the best interest of the majority.

AGAINST Single Use Plastics in the Medical Industry

Damage to the Oceans

From a utilitarianism standpoint, it is understandable that humans initially, rather ignorantly, adopted a nonchalant mindset when it came to disposing of plastic in to the oceans. If it is out of sight, it is surely out of mind, and therefore the action would be considered in the best interest of the majority. However, the current situation means it is now impossible to ignore the warning signs from our planet.

Many disturbing images depicting beautiful marine life trapped in plastic packaging help to hit home the damage that ocean plastic disposal, currently estimated at 4.8-12.7 million tons per year, is doing. The sheer quantity of plastic being disposed by the medical industry means that, by 2050, there will be more pieces of plastic in the ocean than fish. It is common for fish to mistake plastic for food, ingest the plastic and suffer the physiological damage that the plastic can do to the nervous and respiratory system. With knowledge in hindsight of the damage that dumping plastics in the ocean can cause, the consequentialist standpoint proposed by utilitarianism would indeed lead to the proposal of a strong case against the widespread use of single use plastics.

Furthermore, Kantist theory, which states an action can only be good if it is morally right, can provide additional justification for the cessation of plastic disposal in to the oceans. The action of dumping waste in the ocean is not in line with a moral norm and thus cannot be deemed morally right. 

A turtle trapped in a six-pack holder – the damage that plastic is doing to marine life

Damage to the Land

Though the damage caused by plastics to our oceans is currently a larger issue, the effects on land cannot be ignored. The average plastic item takes around 450 years to decompose, with some items such as plastic bags taking 1000+ years. Currently, our primary solution is landfill sites. However, like dumping in the oceans, this is a method used by humans for our benefit only, as it is much easier to hide the waste than to actually deal with it. Unfortunately, this leads to environmental damage and contamination. Disposing of plastics in landfill sites goes against utilitarian ethics as the consequences have many detrimental effects on the local environment and wildlife. Sadly, as this approach is the easiest and cheapest it is the most favourable for the companies and governments that deal with waste disposal.

Kant’s ethical theory suggests that, although using single use plastics in the medical industry can be seen as morally right by some because of its health and well-being implications. It can also be viewed as wrong if we consider the effects it has on the environment. Especially as there are alternative materials which could replace these plastics, regardless of the additional cost. However, medical items are not the only single use plastics coming out of the medical industry, as a study has shown hundreds of millions of disposable cups are used by hospitals around England every year.

Initial Decision

We are AGAINST the use of single use plastics in the medical industry.

30 thoughts on “Single Use Plastics in the Medical Industry

  1. Interesting article to read. I understand the problems that the use of plastic is causing to the environment and it is clear that in the medical industry there needs to be more thought in producing medical equipment out of plastic and disposing of it. The argument against focuses heavily on the damages plastic is causing on the ocean, but it was previously stated that the ” For destruction of medical devices, incineration or disposal is preferred”, so I was just wondering how much plastic from the medical industry alone is actually dumped into the sea?

    I still believe though that a new invention or the use of bio-degradable materials are necessary to help the natural world.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I think there aren’t any key facts on how much actually ends up in the ocean, but disposal over incineration is the chosen end of life action due to the by products produced during incineration, which includes carbon dioxide amongst others. Although, I think landfills ultimately suffer the most.

      Biodegradable materials are definitely the way forward, as this material will ease both the landfill and ocean issues.

  2. What an interesting article. It is a very important and current issue therefore it at the forefront of everyones minds for sure! I cant help but think the suppliers of plastic are most to blame, as they profit at the expense of everyone else.

    It is shocking to see the damage that plastic is doing to both land and sea. I certainly think investment towards biodegradable plastic, such as plastics made from starch would go a long way. Also, other suitable materials such as metals which can be reused should be looked in to.

    Overall, it will definitely be a long time before we can totally phase out the use of plastics, but as humans the onus is on all of us to become more aware of our usage, not just the medical industry.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I find your idea about alternative plastics a good idea, and the starch idea is inspired. A material that is both sustainable, and can break down naturally, whether on land or sea, would be greatly beneficial in terms of saving the environment.

      Also, your concluding point that the onus lies on all of us is something I totally agree with. When individually as humans we begin to consistently think about not only our plastic usage, but our carbon footprint, then we can go some way to stopping the plastic crisis. The onus also lies on the big companies and plastic suppliers who continue to fuel the problem, as they should invest money in alternatives.

  3. Having worked in healthcare for a number of years, I have grappled with the ethics associated with the use and disposal of single use plastics. This article clearly outlines a range of interesting ethical perspectives for consideration. I certainly agree that further research into more environmentally sustainable alternatives is needed!

    1. Thank you for your comment. It is good to have someone with experience shed some more light on the issue! As I’m sure you’re aware, the ethics are a very grey area, as currently plastics offer a lot of inherent advantages. Therefore, should investment go towards finding materials that can offer the advantages of plastics, whilst offering alternate advantages in terms of end of life use, such as biodegradable plastics? food for thought!

  4. An interesting topic that doesn’t get much media coverage. Having worked in the medical industry designing said single use items I do believe it is a problem, as the major driver is simply higher profit margins in most cases. I do not think it will be too hard to invest in more environmentally friendly materials even if it does incur a small cost in the short term.
    That being said any move like that takes time and for the immediate future maybe a more considered disposal strategy would reduce the environmental impact.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I agree that this does not get media coverage! Far more current media issues involve recreational single use plastics such as straws or cups. Are we therefore overlooking the wider issue of plastic consumption? Your point about short term pain for long term gain is a good one, as investment now might secure an environmentally friendly future for our oceans, which are currently suffering.

  5. A very interesting article that should make ya seriously reconsider the harmful effects of using single use plastics despite their great short term advantages.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I agree with the point where you state that single use plastics bring about short term advantages. This also brings about an important point, whereby the short term advantages are a result of poor planning by humans. The long term disadvantages which may follow might be far more catastrophic as first realised.

  6. This is a great article! It is a very insightful topic that really highlights the consequences of single use plastic. There has been so much coverage in social media and with campaigns raising awareness for this when it’s used for things like packaging. The impact of single use plastic in the medical sector needs to be shared with the public!

    I understand that there are areas in the medical field where it is difficult to eliminate the use of this completely as there are not many feasible alternatives at hand. This would take a long time to implement and is still a topic for discussion.

    However, looking at what we can do now, I definitely agree that plastic should be disposed carefully and correctly as this can have a huge impact on the amount of pollution created. Stricter legislations need to be enforced for this to happen.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I agree with your point that in some aspects, it may be a necessary evil. However I believe the medical industry would greatly benefit from an independent review that analyses areas where plastics can be phased out, and any areas where this may not be possible.

  7. On the one hand it’s clear to see that single use plastics provide a clear advantage in their use due to the sterile nature of the products and how cheap the production of these products are. However it is undeniable that the effect single use plastics are having on the environment are extremely negative due to the management of disposing of these plastics which could potentially cause irreversible damage to the environment. The future may lie in developing biodegradable single use plastics which could be broken down via natural processes without harming the environment

    1. Thank you for your comment. I agree with your concluding comment that says the future most look towards developing biodegradable plastics, as I believe this is one of the only ways we can truly reverse the damage that plastics are causing. It may also be an interesting development to research materials that can be reused in some way, perhaps if they can be adequately decontaminated or incinerated.

  8. Really interesting debate, I had not previously thought about the impact of using plastics in the medical industry. I personally believe that we should focus on reduction in other industries where single use plastics can be more easily avoided first. However, I agree with your closing comments regarding single use plastics within hospitals such as disposable cups, here I think the medical industry could make great improvements.

    1. Thank you for your comment. It is definitely a sector that is not considered much, but the contribution towards plastic consumption is vast. There are definitely many areas for improvement, both immediate and long term. There are also many aspects in which plastic is the only option.

  9. Wow, what a great topic. I enjoyed reading your article.

    I have two comments, your main ethical theories seemed to be utilitarianism and Kant’s theory/deontology. how about care ethics and virtue ethics too?

    Also, is the issue how we dispose of single use medical plastics? If we burnt them using the heat in power generation would that work? Obviously, burning plastic produces carbon dioxide, so maybe the best approach is to look to increase use of glass and stainless steel where possible.

    1. Thank you for your comment. From a virtue ethics standpoint, it totally depends on who we define the ‘actor’ as! The plastic suppliers have only selfish intentions as they care about the money, therefore the actor can be seen to be making immoral decisions. The use of glass is an interesting alternative! Unfortunately, I believe in the current climate, stainless steel is far too expensive an alternative.

  10. Very nice article ! I personally believe that the medical industry should invest in other types of material. The use of plastics are degrading the marine life and if this continues the whole eco-system is likely to suffer. Moreover, plastic have a lot of embodied energy which is likely to cause global emissions. But, removing single use plastic from medical industry would take time, so are we ready to tackle this yet?

    1. Thank you for your comment. I agree with your point on investing in other suitable materials, that would certainly help ease plastic use which is currently damaging oceans and landfill. I also agree that it will certainly be a long time before we see any action, however the sooner the better.

  11. This is an interesting debate which needs to be bought to the public’s attention. While the medical sector may not be the largest contributor to plastic waste the value of this single use sector is very high compared to others. There are organisations making huge profits in the medical sector. Should we be lobbying them to invest more in research to develop plastics which can be more safely incinerated, or plastics which can be decontaminated sufficiently to be recycled? Should we consider whether legislation should be used to force their hand by means of levying a ‘research tax’. The health sector has huge buying power, should buyers in this sector be as focused on ethics as cost? Certainly lots of food for thought!

    1. Thank you for your comment. I think your research tax idea is interesting, it would certainly cause some of these money hungry organisations to take action! I also agree with your point that states there should be investment in to safer materials that can be incinerated. As well as this, biodegradable plastics could be an interesting area to research.

  12. This is a really interesting topic that sheds more light on the larger debate about single use plastic in society at the moment. I think it’s clear to see why single use plastics have historically been the main choice for medical equipment due to their cost and availability.

    However the way it’s being disposed of is becoming viewed as less ethical environmentally than the benefits it brings to the health industry

    What I think we need to do is focus on developing equally cost effective solutions which have the same standards of preventing contamination but that are more ethical to dispose of or that can be recycled.

    1. Very good point, if all plastics are disposed and then processed correctly, the pollution that they cause would decrease. Stricter regulations and legislations regarding the disposal of single-use plastics could be implemented, as well.

  13. This article effectively highlights the issue of excessive consumption of plastic waste. As a species we are undeniably destroying the oceans and other ecosystems by not being careful with how we use and dispose of plastic.

    I agree that everyone must consciously cut down on their plastic use, just as companies should invest in alternatives to plastic items, such as food packaging which often is wholly unnecessary and only used once. However, it would be interesting to see how much of this total waste comes from the medical industry, specifically from infectious or hazardous plastics. I assume that this is a very small volume comparatively. At this moment in time, there does not seem to be a viable, cost-effective alternative which could replace hazardous single-use plastics such as gloves and syringes.

    Therefore, although single-use plastics need to be reduced in general, their importance in the medical industry ensures patient safety, convenience and cost-effectiveness. We would be better focused to encourage the reduction of non-essential single-use plastics as well as changing consumer behaviour regarding the use and disposal of these.

    1. May be educating people about the harm that the single-use plastic cause to the environment might be a good start to cut down their use and improper disposal.

  14. The article is interesting as it addresses the pros and cons of single use plastic in the medical industry, however whilst I do feel that single use plastics must be slowly eradicated in all areas, soft drinks companies, along with other food packaging have a responsibility to eradicate their use before the medical industry have to as their need is not of a necessity.

    1. I agree that there is a much greater consumption of single-use plastics in other areas that need alternative solutions.

  15. This is a really interesting read. I had never thought about the impact of single-use plastics used in the medical industry. There has been a lot of coverage on the use of single use plastics in terms of straws, crocker, cultery and packaging. However this is the first article I’ve read looking at it’s use in this area.

    Despite the environmental imapct of single use plastics I think that within the medical industry the economic and sterility issues are far more important so these arguments are given more weight. Personally I feel as though unlit there is an alternative that provides the same level of sterility at a similar cost it is not worth cutting them in this industry. I think that there are many many other areas where plastics can be cut first and many where there are existing alternatives. I therefore would think that this is probably further down on the list in priority.

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      It is interesting that you take the standpoint that cutting out plastics is incorrect. I also agree that there are many different sectors that also need to be plastic conscious. Should the onus therefore be on the government to ensure that sectors are regulated in terms of plastic use, or is it the responsibility of the individual companies themselves?

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