Researchers have created a lightweight prosthetic limb from discarded plastic, which they say could save healthcare providers millions and help tackle pollution.

The artificial limbs were made by grinding down plastic bottles and spinning the grains into polyester yarns which were heated to produce a light, sturdy substance that could be easily moulded.

“Upcycling of recycled plastics and offering affordable prosthesis are two major global issues that we need to tackle,” says the UK academic behind the process, Dr Karthikeyan Kandan, senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK (DMU). “We wanted to develop a prosthetic limb that was cost-effective yet comfortable and durable for amputee patients.”

Image: De Montfort University

The initiative is just one of many across the globe aimed at reducing pollution from single-use plastics. Plastic is cheap, lightweight and durable, making it a highly versatile material. But the staggering increase in single-use plastics over the past century has come with a heavy environmental cost.

 Bottles, food wrappers and cigarette butts are the three main plastic waste items found in Europe’s waterways
Image: Statista

The future of plastics

About 13 million tonnes of plastics leak into our oceans every year, according to UN figures, much of it carried by rivers and waterways. The WWF estimates that 80% of this pollution originates from land sources.

Only a fraction of the plastic waste we generate is recycled. The scale of the single-use plastics problem has led to calls from organizations including the UN to rethink how we produce, use and manage plastics. This theme is discussed in the World Economic Forum report The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics.

Projects such as Dr Kandan’s recycled-plastic limbs, which encourage the recycling and reuse of waste plastics to extend their useful lifespan, are one example of this in action.

About 13 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean every year, according to the UN.
Image: Reuters/Johannes Christo

Tested in India

The new prosthetics were developed with backing from Global Challenges Research Funding – an organization working to tackle the issues faced by developing countries – and independent UK research body the Academy of Medical Sciences.

Dr Kandan teamed up with one of the world’s biggest organizations working to provide disabled people with prosthetics, the Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti, along with experts from the Malaviya National Institute of Technology, both based in Jaipur, India.

Trials of the new prosthetic limbs took place in India’s hot climate, ahead of larger-scale tests in different countries.

India

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Currently, there are two types of prosthetic limbs available: high performance, high expense models, or lower cost, lower quality and less durable varieties. But, the researchers say, limbs made from recycled plastic could provide a middle ground, by producing good quality, strong prosthetics at an affordable price.

The DMU team say their innovation could dramatically cut costs for healthcare providers – to $12 per prosthetic socket, compared with the current average price of more than $6,000.

The biggest beneficiaries are likely to be amputees in developing nations.

“There are so many people in developing countries who would really benefit from quality artificial limbs but unfortunately cannot afford them,” explains Dr Kandan. “The aim of this project was to identify cheaper materials that we could use to help these people, and that’s what we have done.”