Surgical waste someday might become water under the bridge.
Norcross, Ga.-based Isolyser Co. is making surgical supplies out of a plastic polymer that dissolves in water at 190 degrees Fahrenheit. Washing used products down the drain is cheaper than burning or burying them, the company says.
Potentially, up to 70% of all disposable products could be made from the material, called ORex. This year, Isolyser expects to roll out ORex gowns, drapes, bowls and basins.
Hospitals using current ORex products-sponges and surgical towels-say they work as well as traditional items. And according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the material is safe for the sewer system.
"It's something that really is just phenomenal to see," gushed Robert Sweet, director of materials management at 407-bed Baptist Hospital East in Louisville, Ky., and 120-bed Tri County Baptist Hospital in La Grange, Ky.
"They put it in the washing machine, and it goes bye-bye," Sweet said.
"Long term, this solves a lot of the problems we're trying to address," he added.
Earlier this year, Baptist Healthcare System, Louisville, the parent of Baptist East and Tri County, awarded a two-year, $6 million contract to Isolyser. The company will supply Baptist hospitals with custom procedure trays, including ORex products as available.
Some of the biggest healthcare systems, including Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. and Daughters of Charity National Health System, are evaluating ORex and other ways to limit solid waste.
"Waste disposal is becoming more and more of an issue," said Sandra Kolde, director of medical and surgical purchasing at Daughters of Charity.
ORex, its maker claims, is environmentally friendly and cost-effective. "Until now, you either buried medical waste or you thinly divided it in the air by burning," said Travis Honeycutt, an Isolyser executive who developed ORex. "Now we can dissolve it and make it digestible by microbes in the sewer system."
Most hospitals spend 25 cents to 35 cents per pound to dispose of infectious waste, according to experts. Baptist, for example, pays 28 cents per pound. It will spend 3 cents per pound to liquefy ORex products in, essentially, a modified commercial washing machine. The product prices are comparable to alternatives, Sweet said.
Hospitals have an easier time disposing of noninfectious waste. Yet widespread use of ORex probably will knock 5% to 15% off hospitals' total spending on disposable products, Isolyser said.
ORex is made from polyvinyl alcohol, a material long used in water-soluble bags. Regular polyvinyl alcohol, however, breaks down so easily it can't be used for medical supplies. A few years ago, Isolyser perfected a way to compress the polymer's molecules so it dissolves only in very hot water.
The company says it can turn ORex into woven and non-woven fabric, plastic film and plastic goods. Eventually, its researchers hope to produce consumer goods, such as diapers.
Until recently, Isolyser was a small company in the waste-treatment business, selling, for example, chemicals to solidify hazardous spills. In 1993, it bought MedSurg Industries, a move that quadrupled its annual sales to $47 million. Herndon, Va.-based MedSurg, which makes surgical procedure trays, will market and distribute ORex products.
That MedSurg is now involved in a product like ORex is ironic. In 1992, Virginia officials named the company the biggest polluter in northern Virginia. Since its acquisition, MedSurg has built a new sterilization facility that significantly reduced its release of pollutants, a spokesman said.
Last October, Isolyser raised $60 million in an initial public offering.
Its potential fascinates materials managers. Baptist's Sweet remembers urging friends to buy Isolyser stock. "Sell the house and mortgage the kids," he told them. "This concept is slick."
Sweet was not one of those investing, because he wanted to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
ORex is "very, very interesting," said Ron Comeau, director of materials management at 201-bed Redmond Regional Medical Center in Rome, Ga., a Columbia hospital.
"We've seen the products, and they test out like Isolyser said, but it's still in the beginning stages," Comeau said. "For hospitals to get really excited, more products have got to show up in trays and packs."