ST. PAUL – Before a patient rolls into the operating room for surgery, the sterile instruments arrive on a tray covered in a spongy blue plastic known as "blue wrap." Hospitals go through tons of the plastic fabric every year, and up until a few years ago, all of it ended up in the landfill.
In 2009, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce created a pilot recycling effort, and this month, the chamber handed it over to Merrick Inc., a Vadnais Heights nonprofit. The organization will continue to collect, bale and sell the plastic to be manufactured into new products. The niche program barely breaks even, yet it creates meaningful work for people with disabilities.
"We thought it was a great fit for what we're already doing with our plastic programs," said Karen Herrera, Merrick's development and communications director. "We hope to make it grow, and if that happens, we can place additional clients in jobs."
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce got involved in recycling through its nonprofit affiliate, Minnesota Waste Wise Foundation. Local hospital chain Fairview Health Systems approached Waste Wise for help analyzing its trash and identified blue wrap as a small but potentially easy part of the waste stream to recycle.
Waste Wise located a buyer and organized one of the first blue wrap collections in the country, which was recognized in 2010-11 with a Governor's Award for Pollution Prevention. Last year, 19 hospitals in the Twin Cities collected nearly 150,000 pounds of blue wrap. Regions Hospital in St. Paul alone recycled 12 tons.
"It doesn't compact very well and takes up a lot of space," said HealthPartners sustainability manager Dana Slade, who worked with Regions and three other HealthPartners hospitals to implement the program. "If you can remove it from the waste stream and recycle it, it saves a lot of space in your compactor."
And it saves money. For every dollar Regions spends on trash removal, it spends another 70 cents on state and county solid waste taxes. Anything recycled is exempt from taxes.
"I've done the calculations and that's proprietary, so I can't share the numbers, but it's well worth it," said Slade. "And our operating room staff is behind it. We want to do the right thing."
The price of recycled plastic has been dropping along with the price of crude oil. But the value of Twin Cities-generated blue wrap waste has slowly risen from 7 cents a pound to 14 cents, said Jill Curran, executive director of Waste Wise. That's largely because it's single polymer polypropylene #5, and it's clean, according to Polywrap Recycling in Sheboygan, Wis., which buys it from Merrick, processes it into pellets and resells it on the international commodities market, where most of it ends up as plastic automobile parts.
Even so, the program barely breaks even. Waste Wise first worked with the Minneapolis nonprofit Momentum Enterprises (formerly Project for Pride in Living Enterprises), which provides training and jobs for people with employment barriers. This spring, Momentum notified Waste Wise that it could no longer pick up the blue wrap.
"We really believe this material should be recycled, but the blue wrap program was something we couldn't make work financially," said Janet Ludden, president of Momentum, which focuses on creating living-wage jobs through mattress recycling and other programs.
Merrick thinks it can make blue wrap work, in part because hospitals increased the small fee they pay to dispose of it and because Merrick already has a program in place to collect and bale plastic bags, said Herrera, the development and communications director.
The organization runs activities, therapies and employment programs for 375 adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Clients, including the 28 people working in
the plastics recycling program, are paid wages based on productivity, often below minimum wage. Teams that already pick up bags at grocery stores and retailers will simply add hospitals to their routes.
"It is a very, very happy ending," said Curran, with the Waste Wise Foundation. "There were days when I thought for sure I'd have to shut the program down. When you're getting 14 cents a pound and you have to drive a truck around the city to collect it, it's hard to make money on it. So, to have an organization like Merrick is great. They know what they're doing and they've been doing it a long time."
Merrick plans to expand the program to surgical centers and additional hospitals in the metro area, said Herrera.