End of Life Opportunities for Textiles in the UK Healthcare Sector




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Peer reviewed



With such widespread interest emerging in the recycling and re-use of textile products in nearly every aspect of everyday life, healthcare is one which does not automatically spring to mind. However there are millions of textile items utilised within the healthcare sector each year, which begs the question, what happens to them at the end of their life? Sustainability and environmental impact are key issues in today’s society and with textiles playing such a large part in the healthcare sector, it is important to establish their opportunities for becoming more sustainable.

During use many products become contaminated with medicines, body fluids and blood which makes the ability to recycle or re-use difficult. There is an increasing market for disposable products in healthcare due to strict regulations on contact with body fluids and medical products. At present, the majority of textile products put into the healthcare market are incinerated or sent to landfill with almost all disposable products being incinerated after use.

There are several factors which affect the potential recycling or re-use of textile products in healthcare, particularly clothing, such as uniforms, scrub suits and garments used for surgical staff. These include the design of the garment, fibre and fabric type, contamination and the possible issue of logo/hospital branding.

In healthcare clothing, natural fibres such as cotton still play a large part. The most commonly occurring fibres found in healthcare apparel, including doctors, nurses, cleaning and catering staff, is cotton. Both 100% cotton and blended with polyester. Disposable products are also commonly used in the surgical sector, based mainly upon cellulosic fibres. Items such as bed linen use woven 100% cotton, as do curtains and drapes, the latter are commonly treated with a flame retardant such as Proban. Mattress covers tend to be composed of 100% polyester and have a PU coating making them easily washable.

The end of life of healthcare textiles is one which gives much room for discussion and debate, there are both advantages and disadvantages to choosing recycling or re-use over disposal and vice versa. The fabrics selected may mean that recycling is not viable as most blends used in clothing are generally very difficult to separate and make the fibre near impossible to recycle. When considering re-use, the fibre blend does not pose such a difficult problem. There is no definitive answer to this as there are cost and environmental implications for all solutions. Each product has to be catered for individually and a commercial and environmentally beneficial solution has to be identified based on the garments and their potential at the end of life.



disposable, healthcare, medical, re-use, recycle, textiles, end of life


Williams, J., Riley, K. and Waldron, D. (2009) End of Life Opportunities for Textiles in the UK Healthcare Sector. Journal of Fiber Bioengineering and Informatics, pp 709-717


Research Institute