COVID-19 Could Spur Healthcare Plastics Changes

COVID-19 Could Spur Healthcare Plastics Changes
The pandemic could lead to changes in the usage and supply of plastics tailored for healthcare applications.

As an informed panel of petrochemicals pros recently revealed to Rigzone, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed greater emphasis on the benefits of single-use plastics.

Cassie Bradley, INEOS Styrolution Americas LLC’s sustainability and circular economy commercial manager, points out such plastics aid in curbing the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses.

“Single-use items reduce exposure by eliminating the need for personnel to collect, wash and disinfect everyday items as well as medical-specific ones,” Bradley said. “Plastic bags and packaging protect workers who allow us to do social distancing such as grocery and delivery workers, as well as those of us receiving deliveries. Most importantly during a crisis like this, single-use items allow front-line workers to focus on treating the sick and eradicating the virus instead of worrying about the cleanliness of the tools they use.”

In addition to perhaps changing some attitudes among the general public about single-use plastics, COVID-19 has contributed to a major shift in the usage and supply of plastics tailored for healthcare applications. Josh Blackmore, Global Healthcare Manager with the thermoplastic resins distributor M. Holland Co., recently provided his perspective on recent events. Read on for his insights.

Rigzone: In a broad sense, what are the primary healthcare applications for plastics?

Josh Blackmore: Plastics fall into three main categories. The first, and most recognizable, is commodity plastics like polypropylene, polyethylene, styrene or PVC (polyvinyl chloride). These are used for high-volume, often single-use disposable applications like tubing, blood unit bags, masks, gowns or packaging. The second is engineering grades like polycarbonate, acetal, ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) or TPEs (thermoplastic elastomers). These are used for medium- to high-volume applications like housings for medical electronics, including ventilators, drug delivery auto-injectors and surgical tools. Lastly, high-performance plastics like the sulfones is another material used in healthcare. These are typically lower-volume but driven by the need to reuse the devices, which include orthopedic surgical tools and robotic surgical parts.

Rigzone: What do you expect will be the primary plastics-related takeaways for the healthcare industry from the pandemic?

Blackmore: COVID-19 has had a clear and definite impact on all three categories of plastics. There has been a huge spike in single-use disposable applications, which are driving a tight market as producers scramble to make masks, gowns, diagnostic test kits and other disposables. The engineering category has experienced large upswings for applications like ventilators and diagnostic equipment like glucose monitors. High-performance plastics are seeing level or reduced demand. One key takeaway for medical device makers is the importance of evaluating their supply chain to improve continuity and elasticity. Chinese manufacturing during the crisis was hit hard and experienced much reduced capacity. This is an area where original equipment manufacturers will look to improve their positions and ability to supply the U.S. and other markets.

Rigzone: Would you like to add any comments?

Blackmore: COVID-19 exposed the need for improved telemedicine, or virtual medical consults. This has been a growing trend to reduce office and hospital visits, but the pandemic is creating a need to improve electronics and technology in diagnostics and other healthcare-related areas. Additionally, I expect we will also see changes in the type, content and frequency of audits from regulatory bodies like the Center for Devices and Radiological Health – a division of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – and other regulatory bodies looking at supply chain security, anti-counterfeiting and sterilization techniques.

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