Unwrapping environmental benefits: Assessing the life-cycle of sterilization containers

On average, six compactor loads of waste per day are hauled from Saint Mary’s Hospital at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to an incineration facility for ultimate disposal. “This is a huge volume of material being generated across the facility, much of it as a single-use waste stream from our sterilization processes,” says Kevin Hovde, operations manager of hospital surgical services. In fact, the volume of sterilization wrap being disposed of by medium-to-larger facilities has been estimated to be as high as 20 percent of the surgical services waste stream and 5 percent of a hospital total waste stream.

Sterilizing the surgical instruments used in healthcare facilities is a critical procedure required to help minimize patient infection during surgery. Two primary methods are used to contain the surgical tools during sterilization processes and ensure sterility is maintained before patient use. The first is disposable surgical wrap, or blue wrap, a single-use nonwoven sheet comprising polypropylene, an inert polymer derived from petrochemicals. The disposable wrap is designed to allow the sterilant, usually steam, to penetrate and sterilize the instruments. Structural changes to the wrap during the sterilization process prevent entry of microbes and potential contamination during storage.

A second option is a reusable hard case often comprised of aluminum. Surgical tools are placed in the hard boxes which are designed to allow sterilant to penetrate through a small piece of nonwoven polypropylene to sterilize the content of the case. Similar to the disposable wrap, the hard case is used to maintain the tools' sterility until patient use.

Healthcare facilities incur considerable annual expense in managing the surgical tool sterilization process. The ongoing purchase and disposal of the single-use wrap is a contributing factor in these costs. Similarly, the high initial cost of the reusable sterilization cases as well as handling and storage requirements can be deterring factors in their use.

Next page: Comparing life-cycles