O&P-Specific Recycling: One Man's Solution
April 2009 Issue
The hope of an environmentally conscious O&P field may be realized, thanks to Don James Edmondson, Jr., RTP, who has been researching and masterminding development of an O&P-specific wholesale recycling company. "We plan to focus on the raw-material waste in fabrication and manufacturing. My biggest problem is plaster. Our industry goes through hundreds of tons of it each year, and it drives me crazy to think we're only getting essentially one use out of this material before sending it off to a landfill.
Edmondson has talked with engineers at USG and National Gypsum concerning their plaster reclamation methods, while developing his own. His objective is to take each plaster mold and grind it back up, powder it, and then reintroduce any missing elements so that it can be bagged, shipped, and used again.
"In theory, we should be able to purchase a set quantity and just continue to reuse it multiple times after reintroducing the elements."
Plaster recycling operations already exist, he admits, but the ones he is aware of are designed specifically for recovering sheetrock by peeling off the paper backing and releasing the tightly pressed powder inside—a far cry from reconstituting a water-mixed, sometimes oven-baked, hard plaster mold and reducing it to an elemental powder with all its original properties and capabilities.
"What the construction industry needs and what O&P needs are 180 degrees apart," Edmondson says. "That's why I wanted to create my recycling company. A piece of plaster or a mold is probably 60 percent moisture, so I'm learning to extract the moisture, grind everything up, and then return it to a powder to find out which elements are lost that actually make it hydrate and hold the resulting plaster together."
The mineral quality of the water used is significant; purifiers used in municipal water systems may also have an effect.
His experiments since March 2006 have shown increasingly promising results. "We've been doing experiments at my shop with shavings and have successfully gotten some to stay semi-rigid. I'm finding that if we're unable to reuse it for orthotic and prosthetic applications, there are other industries that will benefit from the recycled plaster, which is more economical for them because it doesn't have to be harvested and processed and transported to the degree that raw material does." He cites architectural moldings as an example.
"The idea is protected—to the degree that I want it to be," Edmondson says. "Some of the tooling is available from other industries; we're developing other specific machinery ourselves.
"What I want to do is create a consistent product—something that my customers can count on. If they buy a reclaimed product from me, they're going to know what it feels like, what it's like to work with, what to expect—just like new material.
"We're primarily going to start out with plaster, but we hope to expand into unlabeled plastics. Today's recyclable plastics are marked with the little triangle that notes what type of plastic it is made of—polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, etc. Since our plastics are extruded and sold to us wholesale and then thermoformed, we must develop a system for in-house identification that allows us to independently verify the material and batch it accordingly."
It won't be easy, Edmondson says, since there are new plastics being developed constantly, and each one will require analysis and identification so it can be appropriately batched with plastics from other companies for remelting and extruding.
Edmondson says that feasibility studies are in progress to determine whether his enterprise can operate as a profitable company. "I'm not looking to make a killing with this, but obviously it has to be self-sustaining. My whole concept behind this was loss/cost control, recovery, and conservation of resources."
In the process, he hopes to create jobs for otherwise unemployable people—unskilled workers who want to be productive wage-earners.
Research and resources are costly, Edmondson notes, which is doubtless why this solution has been so long in coming. Edmondson is also concerned about the industry's willingness to accept and participate in such a program, if offered, and he invites responses from facility owners, central fabrication operators, and manufacturers.
For more information or to offer comments, contact Edmondson at Axis Prosthetics,