Recycling – The Afterlife of Medical Implants

by M-Gillies
Recycling medical implants after cremation.

A Dutch Company called OrthoMetals has developed a way to recycle medical implants and benefit charities at the same time.

As cremation continues to rise as an alternative source to the traditional burial, one thing few have ever considered is the remains of orthopaedic implants – from plates and screws from legs and skulls to steel hips. These are metals used for implants that range from medical grade stainless steel to titanium and cobalt chrome, and are produced from non renewable resources. However, with cremation, these metals do not burn into ash and so require a magnet to remove them after cremation takes place.

Until recently, it was a common practice to take the implants from the remains and collect them with other implants to be buried, but with growing concerns over environmental impact of buried metals, one Dutch company has found a new way of recycling these potentially harmful metals.

It all started in 1987, when Rudd Verberne, an aluminum recycler met an orthopaedic surgeon named Jan Gabriels. Upon their meeting Verberne curiously posed a question to the surgeon – what happened to the metal implants he spent his life attaching to patients, after the patient dies? Gabriels couldn’t answer the question, so Verberne did his own research and learned these metals were discard – buried.

Ten years later, Gabriels and Verberne founded OrthoMetals, a company that specializes in recycling orthopaedic metals. Since then, OrthoMetals has changed the way cremated metals are handled. For over 15 years, the company has recycled more than 250 tons of metal from cremations annually – metals that are reused to make cars, planes and even wind turbines.

But it isn’t just non renewable metals OrthoMetals focuses on. They also take less valuable metals to be smelted down and sold for more general uses such as road signs, highway barriers and lamp posts.

In fact, because of their success, OrthoMetals has further inspired five to six other companies – many in the United States – into following their lead.

But for a company like OrthoMetals, it is not a money-grabbing scheme. The value of the implants after death is only a fraction of the cost of their worth before surgery to place them. While an operation to provide a new hip may cost around $8,000, the return value as scrap – per kilogram – is around $16. It takes roughly five hip replacement units to equal the weight of one kilogram.

Instead, what the company does is collect the metal implants for nothing, then sorts them before selling them, all while ensuring they are melted down, rather than reused. Once they deduct their costs of doing this, OrthoMetals returns 70-75% of the proceeds to the crematoria for spending on charitable projects. In Britain alone over $1.5 million has been used for good causes since OrthoMetals began the project.

However, before these metals are sent to be recycled, crematoriums will first seek out consent from the families using the service. Though, those who decline the service are given the option of taking the metals with them or having them remain included with the cremated remains, but this means that the metals cannot be returned afterwards.

To further ensure the services provided by the recycling program, the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management of the United Kingdom, governs the operations with strict criteria. Because over 400,000 cremations take place each year in UK crematoriums, cremations produces much metal residue from orthopaedic implants.

“Once metals are removed from the ash, such metals constitute waste and must therefore be disposed of in accordance with waste management legislation,” reads the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management Response to the Environmental Agency consultation on Funeral Practices and the Environment information sheet.

As Verbern said in The Sun (UK), “What is important is that the metals are being recycled, and this is a growing business in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.”

Read more: OrthoMetals

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