Why medical plastic packaging is so important

Plastic packaging around medical supplies

Doctors, nurses, hospital patients and lab technicians can be exposed to deadly viruses and bacteria on a daily basis. One of the ways to protect them from harm is through medical plastic packaging. Plastic is an ideal material to seal off sterile equipment and prevent contamination. 

Plastics have a vital role to play in the healthcare industry; not only are they used to manufacture medical equipment, but they are also used to protect and seal needles and other apparatus to prevent the spread of diseases and bacteria. All of the single-use medical supplies found in hospitals and clinics are packaged in plastic or paper. 

Plastic packaging also allows these medical items to be transported safely and easily. Examples of medical plastic packaging include diagnostic device packaging, blister packs, intravenous (IV) bags and tubing, prescription bottles, serum vials and medicine dispensers. Most of these products and packaging materials are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) as it is a strong and durable plastic.

Medical plastic packaging undergoes rigorous testing

Before any medical plastic packaging can be sold, it must first undergo numerous tests to ensure safety and suitability for its intended use. These tests usually include physicochemical tests, biological reactivity tests and tests for extractables. They aim to determine whether the plastics are safe for use on patients with weakened immune systems. 

Some of these plastics will also undergo biocompatibility tests to check whether they are possible irritants or could lead to cytotoxicity. All medical equipment needs to be sterile and non-reactive for humans, including the plastic packaging. This ensures that the packaging is compliant with all international health standards and guidelines before being used in the real world.

Is medical plastic packaging recycled?

Most medical equipment is incinerated once it has served its purpose. By burning this waste at extremely high temperatures, it ensures that no bacteria or viruses survive and spread. However, some of the plastic packaging used to protect unused medical equipment can still be recycled – only if these plastics are sterile and have not been exposed to bacteria, blood or tissue.

There are strict guidelines for recycling medical plastic packaging. Each hospital can outline its own recycling strategy but they also need to ensure that the plastic waste is not contaminated in any way. If the plastic has been exposed to sick patients or any form of bacteria, it will need to be incinerated with the rest of the hospital waste.

Medical plastics and the packaging materials used to protect this equipment have a vital role to play in the healthcare sector. Plastics are non-reactive and sterile materials; they protect medical apparatus during transport and prevent equipment from becoming contaminated. These plastics are vital for the daily functioning of hospitals and have saved countless lives.

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Plastics SA represents all sectors of the South African plastics industry. ​Together with our associations, we play an active role in the growth and development of the industry and strive to address plastics related issues, influence role-players and make plastics the material of choice.

​Plastics SA has been mandated to ensure a vibrant and sustainable plastics industry in South Africa. The plastics sector is uniquely placed to meet the needs of a sustainable society and to deliver solutions to many challenges such as recycling, climate change, water scarcity, resource usage and energy recovery.

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Plastics SA Editor