Plastic contamination has reached dangerous levels. One in three fish caught for human consumption now contains some form of plastic. Around a million plastic bottles are bought worldwide every minute. Land pollution can degrade agricultural soil quality, impacting our food supply and our ability to build stable infrastructures as well as our quality of life. Hospitals and healthcare systems generate around 23,000lb of waste each day.
One of the main challenges in the healthcare sector is eliminating single-use plastics, which are widely used in hospitals and the medical device industry. Devices such as plastic retractors – used to hold surgical cuts open – are used once for each patient and thrown away as medical waste at the end of the procedure. This damages the environment and is under continuous scrutiny in the healthcare sector. According to a study conducted by non-profit organisation Practice Greenhealth, 25% of the waste generated by a hospital is plastic.
Single-use plastics are an obvious and safe option for hospitals since they are cheap, can easily be thrown away and can reduce cross-contamination. Only 15% of healthcare waste is classified as hazardous, however, and the rest is similar to the waste we generate at home or work, like food containers or packaging materials. It is the 85% of non-hazardous waste from which the reduction of plastics could come.
Single-use disposables cost less upfront, but in the longer term, it is more expensive to replace devices constantly. For instance, neurosurgeons at one Canadian hospital cut their costs by C$570,000 by reducing the use of disposables by 30%. Another form of waste that could be easily reduced is plastic gloves. Nurses at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, UK, realised that doctors and healthcare professionals had been wearing non-surgical gloves to perform tasks that could be done without them. When nurses reminded staff that gloves weren’t intended for these purposes, the hospital cut its spending on plastic gloves by £90,000.
Plastics and single-use disposables have, unfortunately, been in excessive use due to Covid-19, which has increased healthcare facilities’ medical waste production. More than half of hospital trusts in England and 88% in Wales do not have policies on how to reduce their consumption of single-use plastics, according to the British Medical Association (BMA). This should not, however, stop healthcare providers and medical device firms from playing their part in society’s green transition. Firms must take responsibility for identifying environmental concerns as early as possible to mitigate risks and ensure that environmental protection is not being compromised.