Recycling Medical Waste into Plastic Lumber

New processes and products hold promise for diverting medical waste

plastic lumber
Triumvirate Environmental

The recycling of medical waste has been a largely underserved segment of the recycling industry. While recyclers have enjoyed some success in particular instances, for example where empty pill bottles are separated by pharmacies, successful recycling initiatives in this sector have been scant. Medical waste is sterilized, and then mostly either buried or incinerated in the U.S. and Canada. Neither one of these outcomes could be categorized as optimal outcomes from an environmental perspective.

And given a value of $10 billion globally, there is a lot of waste material being generated by the healthcare sector.

The medical waste stream does have a high concentration of plastic, however, which is of interest to recyclers. The waste stream material consists of 70 to 80 percent high-density polyethylene (HDPE) with another 15 percent of mixed plastics. The mix of plastics, as well as paper and cardboard contamination, result in a material that is difficult as well as very expensive to separate. This reality has proven to be a significant barrier to commercially viable recycling initiatives.

In spite of those challenges, one medical waste disposal company is addressing the problem through recycling medical waste into plastic lumber. The idea behind the project, according to John McQuillan, CEO of Triumvirate Environmental Inc., is in helping the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries meet their aspirations towards zero-landfill by 2020.

The company has sales of around $120 million annually,emphasizing on hazardous and medical waste management.

The Somerville, MA-based company purchased two companies in 2014. One of them was Medical Waste Recovery Inc., located in Jeannette, PA, while the other was Northern Plastic Lumber, a plastic lumber producer situated in Lindsay, Ontario.

Subsequently, the production machinery was moved to the Jeannette operation. Today, medical waste is received at the Jeannette plant where it is transformed into plastic lumber, which it produces through its wholly owned affiliate, Best Plastic Lumber U.S., and markets its production under the BestPlus brand name. 

The mixed nature of the material has long been a hurdle for recycling industry efforts. Typically, recyclers don’t want to see various types of plastics being commingled in their plastic recycling process. Triumvirate's process, on the other hand, involves removal of any metal before processing the rest of the material. It is sterilized shredded, compounded and then extruded as a range of typical lumber profile sizes, as well as in larger profiles for parking blocks or speed bumps. The resulting product includes plastic, as well as other residuals such as paper, wood, and cardboard. The material can be colored in the course of production, or subsequently painted by the end user.

The good news is that given the amount of medical waste that is generated across North America, there is no shortage of feedstock for the production of its BestPlus plastic lumber. The challenge, however, is finding markets to purchase the plastic lumber being produced.

Early results have been promising, with sales increasing from nil to more than $600,000 monthly in less than two years. The BestPlus product is positioned as a utility grade product recommended for applications such as dunnage, landscaping timbers, nailer boards, fence posts, blocking, retaining walls, speed bumps, dock bumpers, marine pilings and other uses. The material is also being utilized as pallet runners for material handling applications. 

Buoyed by the success of the plastic lumber operation at Jeannette, Triumvirate is making plans to launch an additional five countries across the country.  BestPLUS Plastic Lumber is reported by the manufacturer as being suitable for common woodworking tools or CNC production. It is described as a waterproof and maintenance-free product, resistant to most chemicals, insects, termites, splitting, warping and is impact resistant.