Hospitals are among Australia’s worst polluters: here are 6 greening initiatives

Medical politics

By Michael Woodhead

28 Aug 2018

Hospitals exist to restore people to health but in the process they are making the planet sicker through widespread and systematic waste and pollution, Queensland researchers say.

Healthcare industry practices such as routine use of disposable plastic items and the incineration of waste mean that hospitals churn out disproportionate amounts of garbage and spew tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, according to anaesthetist Dr Kerstin Wyssusek (pictured above) and colleagues at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital.

Writing in Waste Management and Research they note that operating theatres are among the worst polluters in hospitals due to a high proportion of supplies being single use, disposable and sealed in sterile packaging. With items such as drapes, masks, gloves and tubing being thrown out, it is not unusual for a single operation to generate three large bin bags full of garbage – equivalent to 2300kg of waste per operating room per year.

Operating theatres also consume prodigious amounts of water for scrubbing up and the anaesthetics used are potent greenhouse gases, with one anaesthetist creating the equivalent global warming gases of 1000km of car driving per day.

Hospitals also have a huge carbon footprint because much of the waste is unnecessarily classified as hazardous, requiring it to be incinerated, the authors point out. By one estimate, Australian hospitals generate in excess of 235,000kg or CO2 per day.

“In a world where global warming, climate change, and sustainability are a priority, the healthcare system is lagging behind … it is incumbent upon hospitals to help reduce the environmental impact of their facility,” they write.

Greening of Hospitals can occur in six areas, they suggest:

  • Reduce waste, eg better use of general waste bags (clear) instead of clinical waste (yellow) that require incineration; avoiding ‘overage’  with supplies kits that when opened must be used or disposed; more efficient use of electricity and water supplies.
  • Reuse items, eg surgical linens and drapes, reprocess single use devices.
  • Recycling more, eg  switching from blue sterile wrap to hard cases, laryngoscope blades.
  • Rethink waste systems, working practices.
  • Research into new approaches and waste-avoidance technologies.
  • Redesign facilities, use novel technology.

The authors point out that greening initiatives also have the potential to create financial savings. It is estimated that healthcare waste disposal accounts for 20% of a hospital’s environmental services budget, with ten times higher costs  for sharps and clinical waste compared to general waste. Savings would also accrue from reduced energy costs and reduction in volume of supplies of disposables such as drapes.

However, for this to occur there needs to be strong efforts to overcome barriers such as lack of leadership, staff attitudes and resistance to change, fears of increased workload and concerns over infection risks, they say.

“In summary, the ongoing obliviousness of how healthcare impacts our ecosystem represents a very real threat to the longevity of our healthcare system and our planet. As patient advocates, community leaders, and scientists, health care personnel are well positioned to spearhead research and greening initiatives around more sustainable health care practices,” they conclude.

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