Some plastics get a second life through the Mayo Clinic’s recycling facility – Post Bulletin

ROCHESTER — Like most industries in the 21st century, health care uses a lot of plastic. On a single day, Mayo Clinic’s Rochester facilities generate 60,000 pounds of waste, with plastic making up a good portion of that heap.

“One surgery generates the amount of waste that a family of four generates in a week,” said Angie Dalenberg, operations manager for Mayo Clinic Environmental Services.

While some of that waste heads to the Olmsted Waste-to-Energy Facility or the Mayo Clinic’s own Waste Management Facility for incineration, several types of plastic — along with cardboard, paper, metal, electronics and more — are prepared for reuse in the Mayo Clinic Recycling Center along Third Avenue in Rochester.

“We use a lot of plastics, whether it’s in providing care for our patients or in doing research,” said Amanda Holloway, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Office of Sustainability. “Plastics are just pretty ubiquitous in the materials we’re using, and a lot of it is appropriate so, especially for infection prevention and control. … But, I will say, there’s an opportunity for a lot of reuse in health care as-well.”

The recycling facility manages what many people might think of as everyday recyclables: aluminum cans, office paper, plastic bottles, cardboard. Mixed recycling, including drink cans and bottles, is sent to a facility in La Crosse, Wisconsin for recycling.

“It’s an 80-yard container that we send out about once a week,” Dalenberg said.

The facility is also equipped to prepare plastics for recycling that are not commonly reprocessed for reuse. One type is surgical blue wrap, a polypropylene fabric that is wrapped around surgical instruments when they are steam sterilized in an autoclave.

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Surgical blue wrap ascends a conveyor belt to be prepared for recycling at the Mayo Clinic Recycling Center in Rochester on June 28, 2023.

Dené K. Dryden / Post Bulletin

Beginning in 2018, Dalenberg said the Mayo Clinic began recycling its surgical blue wrap. After the wrap is collected, employees at the recycling center feed it into a baler. The wrap will be sold back to a plastics manufacturer to be reborn as a new product.

“Having a market for it is the hard part,” Dalenberg said of recycling surgical blue wrap. “Because we have that kind of volume advantage where we generate a lot of this one type of (plastic) … we can take that and find a market for it.”

The Mayo Clinic facility is also home to one of the four plastic foam densifiers in Minnesota, Dalenberg said, allowing the health system to recycle the truckload of plastic foam it produces daily.

“Our Mayo Clinic laboratory specimens that come in, most of the time they come in a Styrofoam cooler, and we shred those here,” Dalenberg said.

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Dan Rhyner uses a chainsaw to cut a block of compressed recycled plastic foam at the Mayo Clinic Recycling Center in Rochester on June 28, 2023.

Dené K. Dryden / Post Bulletin

The densifier shreds the plastic foam before compressing it into a long, square log of material. The densifier operator uses a chainsaw to cut the foam logs so that they can be neatly stacked onto a wooden pallet for transport.

Clear plastic bags, plastic film and single-use plastic containers for lab equipment, such as pipettes, are also processed in the recycling center, Dalenberg said.

A small team of about a dozen employees manages it all.

“I call our teams small and mighty teams,” Dalenberg said. “I can’t give them enough credit for the hard work they do every day.”

According to the Mayo Clinic Recycling Center’s 2017-2020 averages, the facility processes more than 5,600 tons of waste, including food waste, for recycling or reuse. This includes 32 tons of surgical blue wrap, 108 tons of plastic foam and, 28 tons of plastic film and 1,639 tons of scrap metal.

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Brian Hess prepares surgical blue wrap for recycling at the Mayo Clinic Recycling Center in Rochester on June 28, 2023.

Dené K. Dryden / Post Bulletin

Some of that recycled material comes back to the Mayo Clinic in new forms. Dalenberg said the pavers used in the courtyard at the Harwick Building were created by a St. Charles company that used recycled plastic from the Mayo Clinic.

“We’re very careful and conscious — we want to know where all of our stuff is going to ensure that it is getting recycled,” Dalenberg said.

Sometimes, though, cost can be a barrier in buying products made from the Mayo Clinic’s discarded materials.

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A pile of shredded plastic at the Mayo Clinic’s recycling center in Rochester on June 28, 2023.

Dené K. Dryden / Post Bulletin

“There are companies that make blue wrap into single-use bedpans, little washbasins for patients,” Dalenberg said. “The hard part about that is they’ll be much, much more expensive even though we’re like, hey, we need to make that circular economy and buy our stuff back.”

While the Mayo Clinic recycles a lot of plastic, there are efforts to reduce plastic use in the health system. Holloway said the Mayo Clinic uses reusable metal containers for surgical tool sterilization in order to offset the amount of surgical blue wrap used.

“The challenge is we can’t completely use the reusable sterilization containers for all of our cases,” Holloway said. “There are just some surgical instruments that don’t fit inside the cases, and so we still use blue wrap.”

Mayo Clinic also cuts down on waste by reusing its waste containers for sharps, medical glass and hazardous pharmaceutical waste. While the contents in those containers cannot be recycled, the plastic bins themselves can be emptied, sanitized and put back into use.

“That helps us reduce quite a bit of plastic as well from the waste stream,” Holloway said.

Further, some single-use surgical devices can actually be sent to third-party companies to be disassembled, cleaned and then reassembled for reuse, Holloway said. Devices that can be reprocessed include air transfer mattresses, tourniquets and electrocardiogram, or ECG, leads.

These reduction efforts build into the Mayo Clinic’s overarching sustainability goals, Holloway said, such as reducing the health system’s greenhouse gas emissions and energy use.

“It’s a challenge, but it’s a worthwhile challenge — finding ways that we can further reduce the amount of waste we produce,” Holloway said.