Circular Fashion Revolution: Recycling Medical Scrubs for a Greener Future
By reusing products, reducing waste and recycling materials, the industry is transforming the way medical workwear is manufactured and used.
- By Steven John Cumper
- Oct 10, 2023
Now there is a greater focus on sustainable practices within the healthcare industry. All stakeholders are becoming aware of the need to balance their environmental responsibilities with patient care needs. The primary agenda on the list is how to tackle waste management in healthcare, particularly how to recycle medical scrubs.
The consensus among healthcare institutions, care providers, government authorities and non-governmental organizations is that the current practices in healthcare need to be reimagined. One way to do that is by approaching waste as a resource that can be recycled to bring down costs, improve patient well-being and reduce environmental impact.
From Production to Disposal: Understanding the Environmental Impact of Scrubs
While medical scrubs are crucial for maintaining hygiene, it’s important to also analyze their environmental impact. These are the main ways in which scrubs pose sustainability challenges from production to disposal.
Scrubs are usually made from a mixture of polyester and cotton. The latter is a water-intensive crop and its production can aggravate water scarcity in places where it’s grown. Polyester, a byproduct of petroleum, needs an enormous amount of energy in its manufacturing stage. Plus, it’s not biodegradable.
Chemical dyes are needed to create colors in medical scrubs. Their use can release dangerous pollutants into the soil and waterways near the production facilities. Since these chemicals accumulate in the nearby ecosystems, they pose serious risks to humans, cattle, and other animals and birds.
The transportation of medical scrubs also contributes to carbon emissions. Whether it’s from a production facility to a distribution center or from a healthcare facility to a laundry service, there are serious environmental challenges that the industry needs to be aware of. The problem is more severe since most manufacturing plants are situated overseas.
Single-use scrubs usually end up in landfills, where it takes years for the synthetic fabrics used in their manufacturing to decompose. Landfills have been identified as “super emitters” of methane and the third-largest source of this greenhouse gas.
The Importance of Closing the Loop in Healthcare Products
According to the American Medical Association, one of the biggest challenges to sustainable medical care is the disposal of healthcare waste. Switching to reusable healthcare products can help reduce the environmental impact of the sector. The solution is to “close the loop.”
Closing the loop involves manufacturing products that can be used, reused and recycled. Instead of a linear model where products invariably end up as waste, it relies on a circular process. This significantly reduces wastage and the strain on surrounding ecosystems and communities. In healthcare, closing the loop is a transformative and sustainable approach that can redefine how products are manufactured, transported, used and recycled.
Exploring the Environmental Benefits of Circular Scrub Design
Using the principles of the circular economy, circular scrub design creates products that are recyclable and regenerative. This is different from the traditional “take, make and dispose” philosophy in manufacturing. Circular scrub design is a holistic strategy of reusing and recycling that provides several key benefits.
Circular scrub design minimizes waste generation in healthcare. Producers can minimize the amount of waste by creating products that can be reused and recycled. Certain products can even be upcycled, which will divert chemicals and fabrics from waste streams. This goes a long way in preserving natural ecosystems.
Lower resource consumption
One reason there’s greater interest in sustainable and ethical scrubs because the process of circular scrub design lowers resource consumption. When scrubs are designed to be repaired, disassembled, reused and repurposed, there’s reduced pressure to constantly source new raw materials.
Smaller carbon footprint
Circular scrub design can reduce the need for energy-intensive production processes and transportation. If products can be locally sourced and effectively recycled, there will be a significant reduction in the overall carbon footprint. Research has found that reusable hospital gowns can lower greenhouse gas emissions by 66 percent.
The Future of Sustainable Healthcare: Innovative Recycling Techniques for Medical Scrubs
Several recycling methods are redefining scrub usage in the healthcare industry. These are some of the most innovative.
Plant-based fibers—including organic cotton, hemp and bamboo—are now being explored as alternatives to traditional materials. They decompose faster in landfills and reduce the collective reliance on petroleum-based products. Their decomposition also makes the soil richer, which makes the ecosystem healthier.
Selective fiber recycling
Using advanced technology, researchers are separating natural and synthetic fibers. Breaking down the fabrics makes it easy to recycle and reconstitute them into new materials and products. Importantly, these products don’t compromise on either performance or comfort.
Microorganisms such as enzymes and bacteria can break down certain fabrics. This microbial degradation makes it easy to return these components to the ecosystem, instead of letting used garments and scrubs languish in landfills.
On-demand production technologies such as 3D printing allow healthcare institutions to create customized scrubs when they need them. There’s no need to order these in bulk, which will lead to waste. There’s also no need for storage or transport since it’s produced at the site.
A Greener Future for Healthcare: How Circular Fashion Reshapes Medical Workwear
The healthcare sector is consciously moving away from its reliance on single-use garments to circular fashion. By reusing products, reducing waste and recycling materials, the industry is transforming the way medical workwear is manufactured and used. The reusable system has a 31 percent lower impact on climate change when compared to the disposable alternative.
Closed-loop systems in healthcare can not only foster sustainability but also lead to demonstrable cost savings. With reduced need for new garments, healthcare providers can redirect their resources towards enhancing patient outcomes. That’s how circular fashion is creating win-win scenarios for caregivers and care receivers.
Steven John Cumper, B.App.Sc. (Osteo.), M.Ost., is a businessman with a strong background in biomedical science and osteopathic medicine. He founded Medshop & ScrubsIQ while studying at RMIT University in Australia, expanding its reach to markets in Papua New Guinea, Singapore, and Malaysia. In September 2021, the Bunzl Group acquired a majority stake in Medshop, but Cumper remains involved as the Managing Director (Medshop Group). His journey from Zimbabwe to the UK and Australia reflects his dedication to academia and entrepreneurship, combining diverse knowledge and experience.