Almost all that glitters is gold - Almost all that glitters is gold – recycling at Dräger

Almost all that glitters is gold

More stories from the world of Dräger

Waste products are raw materials

Medical and safety equipment requires high-performance materials and metals. The Dräger waste management team takes raw materials from decommissioned products and feeds them back into the circular economy.

Text Constanze Sanders     Photos Patrick Ohligschläger

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Almost all that glitters is gold - Harvesting raw materials from the Dräger Interlock
Harvesting raw materials

The separated sensor used for performing alcohol breath tests in the Dräger Interlock (left, above the device) contains platinum, for example.

Thinking in reverse

Florian Baer’s job is to think about things starting from the end of their life. Old electronic devices, packaging material, production waste: Everything that ends up here in the product returns unit has served its purpose. Industrial specialist Baer is head of waste management at Dräger Gebäude und Service GmbH, which has two sites in Lübeck and is a certified waste disposal facility in accordance with Section 56 of Germany’s Circular Economy Act (Kreislaufwirtschaftsgesetz or KrWG). “We get the best out of the waste and dispose of elements that cannot be recycled, while complying with the legal regulations – to protect the environment,” he says.

Baer sees apparent waste as a stream of valuable materials which, together with five colleagues, he diverts in new directions. The sources for the raw materials are old devices that customers no longer need. “We take back equipment that we manufacture ourselves,” says Dr. Michaela Schatz, environmental officer at Dräger. The company has taken responsibility for such products very seriously since the 1990s; for the entire life cycles of its medical and safety equipment and beyond. “We do this voluntarily with KrWG approval,” says the chemist, “and we want to increase understanding.”

Every year, two technicians dismantle more than 100 tons of medical equipment, measuring technology, sensors, filters, and other consumable materials from devices that have been returned by customers. “We are certified as a primary facility for dealing with old equipment in accordance with the Electrical and Electronic Equipment Act,” says Florian Baer. Dräger supports the disposal of such equipment with recycling passes and material lists, diagrams, and dismantling recommendations in line with the WEEE Directive 2012/19/EU (Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment).

Almost all that glitters is gold - Florian Baer, head of waste management at Dräger
Efficient recycler

“Our disposal policy protects the environment and is economically efficient with the maximum possible recycling rate,” says Florian Baer, head of waste management at Dräger.

Turning waste into key resources

In the trolley of a ventilator, around 15 kg of aluminum can be identified and recycled. The employees primarily use their extensive experience to determine what can be separated, but they conduct tests if they are unsure. Following the initial rough dismantling process, steel, copper, and brass remain as alloys in other components. Mixed materials, welded and glued parts, device waste, and printed circuit boards are sent to service providers that can separate and sort such components. “This helps us to make sure that our electrical waste doesn’t end up on illegal dumping sites,” says Baer.

Recovering precious metals

Tiny amounts of gold and platinum can be found in high-quality sensors: “The elements that glitter like gold are actually gold – mostly in the form of a thin coating that can nonetheless be recovered perfectly well.” After the sensors have been taken back and dismantled free of charge, they are sent to a metal recycling facility where high-purity gold, silver, and platinum are recovered. Recyclable amounts of platinum can also be found in the sensors fitted in the Alcotest devices, several thousand of which have been taken back from the French police, for example. All individual parts, testers, sensors, printed circuit boards, and housing elements are fed back into the cycle after being dismantled. Taking back products from outside Germany is a complex process in accordance with European waste laws. “However, we also want to offer the service to our European customers,” says Dr. Michaela Schatz. Until now, this has always involved complex notification processes and high costs.

The European Commission wants to revise the Waste Shipment Regulation (WSR). “We are committed to making it easier for the manufacturer to take responsibility for its products,” says Dr. Schatz.

Almost all that glitters is gold - Enrico Schernau, an employee at Dräger’s waste management unit
Professionally dismantled

Employee Enrico Schernau takes apart an oxygen self-rescuer in the product returns unit in Lübeck, northern Germany. Dräger disposes of damaged, opened, used and expired products.

Creating value and eliminating hazardous substances

Dismantling old equipment is about creating value and eliminating hazardous substances – as in the case of oxygen self-rescuers, for example, which are used in the mining industry. A technician carefully dismantles the product by hand, removes the cartridge that contains a chemical that produces oxygen, and deactivates the starter. The plastics are labeled; these are sorted into their distinct types and then recycled.

With up to eight tons each day, hospitals are the fifth-largest producers of waste in Germany. On average, each patient produces around six kilos per day, three times more than a normal, healthy citizen. Dräger begins focusing on the economical use of materials and their recyclability in the product development stage. Blue and black recycling containers have been set up at hospitals and industrial facilities for years so that equipment can be returned in the correct manner. Dräger largely remains unrivaled in terms of offering such a service.

“We have the experience and the expertise, because we know what the equipment contains,” says Florian Baer. “If required, we can take care of the entire logistics and offer our customers a complete package.” This is made possible by the Dräger Waste Management Association, which was established around twenty years ago. On behalf of its members, it handles all tasks relating to eco-friendly, legal, and economical waste management. The big Dräger companies in Lübeck and other industrial firms (a total of 26 businesses) send everything here that they no longer need. “We separate and sort the goods, keep the necessary legal records, and produce reports documenting the amount of waste,” says Baer. Rather than being a disposal business, Dräger Waste Management is actually a service provider that works on behalf of the association. “We send the material for recycling – or, if this is not possible, for disposal and landfill.”

Dräger sampling tubes are constantly being used for the analysis of harmful substances. The reagent system contains tiny amounts of different chemicals. Substances that are subject to authorization requirements in accordance with the EU REACH Regulation have already been replaced by less harmful substances in the production process. Used or expired Dräger tubes can be sent to Lübeck for recycling. Dräger also conducts research to determine whether ventilation tubes and filters can be manufactured from bioplastic or recyclate. “Unfortunately, this is where we are still reaching our limits, because the regulations for medical products are very strict,” says Dr. Schatz. There is generally no guarantee that recyclate meets the same quality requirements as new plastic. And compared to conventional plastic, the production of bioplastic is expensive.

“We have the experience and the expertise, because we know what the equipment contains,” says Florian Baer. “If required, we can take care of the entire logistics and offer our customers a complete package.”

Florian Baer
Head of Waste Management, Dräger Gebäude und Service GmbH

Complex legal system

There are at least 35 overriding local, regional, national, and EU legal provisions, laws, regulations, and directives governing the safe and clean disposal of waste. Opt for recycling over disposal of goods – the Circular Economy Act adds this preferred order to the extensive nomenclature. Every new waste code needs its own approval: “Each for a limited period,” says Dr. Schatz, an expert in hazardous substances. “Extensions must be applied for on an individual basis.” The strict and ever-growing legal system in the disposal industry is her specialist field. “We work closely with the City of Lübeck.”

In 2019, 3,900 metric tons of waste accrued at Dräger in Lübeck, with a recycling rate of almost 96 percent. “Hazardous waste like solvents and leftover paint and lacquer go to special incineration plants,” says Baer. “Just a small amount of leftover waste ends up in landfill, such as asbestos or insulating materials.” However, at the very top of the five-tier waste hierarchy of the KrWG (Section 6) is the prevention of waste. Since 2009, while sales have risen, the total amount of waste produced at Dräger has almost halved to a little over two tons of waste per million euros of sales. EU directives are increasingly determining what is needed to save resources. The European Commission has calculated that up to 80 percent of the environmental impact of products can be traced back to the design phase. Dräger starts out by considering how new instruments can be recycled properly once they have served their purpose, and pursues the long-term C2C (cradle-to-cradle) principle, which is committed to cyclical reuse of raw materials rather than linear use. Since 2015, there has been a systematic monitoring program for materials whose legal restriction is foreseeable or under discussion.

“Sustainable products will be the norm in the future,” says the Lithuanian Virginijus Sinkevičius, EU Commissioner for the Environment. The right to repair set out in the EU’s Circular Economy Blueprint is a fundamental principle at Dräger. Professional maintenance and repairs are carried out worldwide so that customers benefit from machines with a long service life.

Almost all that glitters is gold - Aluminium filters and soda lime in bulk at Dräger’s raw materials collection site
Collecting raw materials

Soda lime in bulk in the disposal yard. Returned aluminium filters prior to shredding.

Ensuring that the life cycle of the raw material ends as responsibly as it began

A patient is anaesthetized for an operation in Germany around 18 million times a year. Each anaesthesia machine contains a plastic cartridge with soda lime in order to bind CO2 (carbon dioxide) from the exhaled air. “Since 2015, the Regional Working Group on Waste (Bund/Länder-Arbeitsgemeinschaft Abfall or LAGA) has classified soda lime as hazardous waste,” says chemist Schatz. Separate collection and appropriate documentation have been obligatory ever since. The dry chemical product must be replaced approximately every four weeks, because it gradually loses its absorption ability. Dräger provides a comprehensive collection and recycling concept for soda lime (Type: Drägersorb 800+) and cartridges. Hospitals collect the used containers in recycling drums, which are then well sealed and returned to Dräger as soon as they are full. “The customer can be sure that they have found a clean and legal means of disposal. This saves both time and money,” says Dr. Schatz.

An employee in the product returns department removes the used chemical from the carton, which is then shredded and thermally recycled. Due to the large amounts of soda lime involved, it becomes a bulk material which accumulates in the disposal yard. Once it has been processed, some of it is used in agriculture to improve the soil. The Dräger disposal yard handled several hundred tons of soda lime waste in 2019. Active carbon from mask filters can also be used for a second purpose: Dräger delivers the used granules to the metalworking industry as a reducing agent in smelting furnaces, thereby ensuring that the life cycle of the raw material ends as responsibly as it began. The active carbon is made from the shells of coconuts – a renewable raw material. The aluminum filters are collected, shredded, and sent to a recycler as metal shreds.

Infographic on Dräger product returns

Dräger product returns

Based on the example of soda lime: Anesthesia machines contain plastic cartridges filled with soda lime, which binds CO2 from the exhaled air. Soda lime has been classified as hazardous waste since 2015 and must be disposed of separately from the cartridges. What’s more, documentation is required. That is the job of Dräger’s waste management unit. The customer collects the used cartridges in recycling drums.

Dräger product returns

Supplier of secondary raw materials

Even though medical equipment only accounts for around three percent of annual global plastic production, high-performance plastic is leading in terms of innovative use – whether for disposable items, implants, or diagnostic aids. “We sort plastics in abundance,” says Florian Baer. Only correctly sorted plastic – unpainted, with no plasticizers or adhesions – can be marketed well. “There is currently barely a market in Germany for the colorful mix of different polymers.” If there are no takers, the only remaining option is to thermally recycle them at specialist companies; this amounts to several hundred tons a year at Dräger. Although the energy gain is considerable, for Baer it is only the second-best solution. He is interested in the recovery and reuse of materials, whether as packaging or in logistics and storage systems, as flower and drinks boxes, film, window frames, or watering cans made from recyclate. “Our secondary raw materials are dependent on national and international markets and the corresponding prices.” 

Agreements with the waste generators on the amount paid for quantities of waste are assessed and adjusted on a monthly basis. Since 2019, the German Packaging Act (Verpackungsgesetz) requires a recycling rate of 58.5 percent, rising to 63 by 2022. To date, there has been no reliable market for recyclate that would enable the higher rates to feed into a functioning circular economy. In addition, Hamburg Cirplus was launched in March 2020. This is a freely accessible stock exchange for secondary plastic that already has a volume of 500,000 tons. Plastic in every grade of purity is traded here. A yellow bag can be bought for just one cent. “When it comes to waste management in an industrial firm, it is not about earning money,” stresses Florian Baer. “We want to save money – for our customers too – while protecting the environment.”

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