How energy is generated from disposable surgical textiles

The ecologically sound disposal of surgical drapes and gowns is an important part of efficient hospital waste management. Disposable surgical drapes and coats are very suitable for thermal recycling: they have a particularly high calorific value, and the energy released is used to generate heat and energy.

Ecological action for disposable surgical drapes and gowns begins with purchasing and ends with appropriate disposal. A new expert paper of the “Initiative Sicherheit im OP” (SIOP) provides information on this topic. Werner Grobbauer, MSc, an expert in sustainable waste and energy management, one of the paper’s scientific advisors, cites disposable surgical drapes and gowns as an environmental plus:

  • They are always new, therefore no reprocessing and re-sterilization is necessary.
  • Saves detergent and water through single use.
  • High calorific value, therefore particularly suitable for thermal recycling (“waste to energy”).

“Energy from waste saves fossil fuels,” adds Ing. Bernhard Bogner, plant manager of the Dürnrohr waste recycling plant. “Conservation of resources, reduction of emissions and the greenhouse effect, increased air quality in the region and an improvement in the CO2 balance are the result.”

Avoid packaging waste, reduce costs

The Wels-Grieskirchen Clinic, with around 30 medical departments, has been using surgical packages with disposable covers for some time. Markus Schmidhuber (Purchasing) on his company’s experience: “This not only avoided packaging waste, but also reduced both the process costs in the OR and the actual costs compared to working with individual components. In terms of economic efficiency and additional waste avoidance, it is important to only have products in the OR package that are actually used and do not have to be discarded.”

For a hospital of this size, there is great potential in waste avoidance, says Wolfgang See, the hospital’s waste and hazardous materials officer: “Going green means very complex processes. For example, we only use disposable surgical drapes and coats, which are very suitable for thermal recycling and energy generation due to their high calorific value.”

“Residual waste similar to household waste”

The majority of disposable surgical drapes and gowns fall into the category of “waste without risk of injury”. According to the standard, such waste can be treated as “residual waste similar to household waste” if it is packaged in liquid-tight, opaque, sealed bags that are safe for transport.

Werner Grobbauer, MSc, the hospital’s external environmental and energy officer, explains how disposal works at the Elisabethinen Hospital in Graz: “At the Elisabethinen Hospital in Graz, disposable surgical textiles (approx. 5,000 kilograms/year) are collected daily in a ten-cubic-metre press container together with waste that can only pose a risk of infection or injury within the medical area, in accordance with ÖNORM. An authorized and certified disposal company empties the container weekly. Thermal recovery of medical non-hazardous waste SN 91704 takes place in approved thermal waste recovery plants in Austria.”

Karl Freudenthaler (Freudenthaler GmbH & Co KG, Inzing) adds: “From an ecological point of view, the most important thing is to transport the waste from the disposal company’s site to the incineration plant in a way that is as greenhouse gas-neutral as possible (rail transport) with optimised container weight.

Solid incineration residues can be used in a variety of ways in some cases

A substantial part of the solid incineration residues can be recovered in a usable form (e.g. metals, gypsum) or in a quality similar to building materials (e.g. stones and sand, sintered slag, sintered ashes as glassy granulate) if the appropriate process technology is used.

Click here for the full text of the expert paper: SIOP Publications