NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


March 20, 2008

In a bid to save costs and stem a rising tide of medical waste, hospitals are recycling a growing number of medical devices labeled as single-use, from scissors and scrubs to the sharp blades surgeons use to saw through bones.  Recycling medical devices labeled for single use is legal as long as certain Food and Drug Administration guidelines are followed.  But the practice, which involves shipping devices to reprocessing facilities to be cleaned, sterilized and tested for reuse, has raised concerns about safety, says the Wall Street Journal.

For example:  

  • Medical device makers say their single-use products are just that, and pose a higher risk of failure and harm when recycled.
  • Reprocessing companies, hospital associations and environmental groups counter that the devices they reprocess are as safe as new thanks to modern sterilization methods, cost 40 percent to 60 percent less and can eliminate thousands of tons of waste from landfills.


  • About $31.5 billion of single-use medical devices are sold annually in U.S. hospitals and surgery centers, of which around $150 million are recycled, according to Ascent Healthcare Solutions, a leading reprocessing company.
  • John Grotting, Ascent's chief executive, estimates that about $3.6 billion of single-use devices are safe for reprocessing, which could save the health-care industry about $1.8 billion a year.
  • Ascent hospital customers eliminated about 1,684 tons of waste from their local landfills last year, a 31 percent increase over 2006, by using reprocessed devices.

Of 65 events reported to the FDA from October 2003 to July 2006 involving or suspected to involve reprocessed devices, the device was just one of several possible causes of harm, and the adverse events were of the same type reported for new devices.  Hospital administrators and other experts say many products such as saw blades that were historically designated as reusable now carry single-use labels, with no obvious difference in the product.

Source: Laura Landro, "Hospitals Reuse Medical Devices To Lower Costs," Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2008.

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