In the modern age of healthcare, most of the materials we use are single-use; IV supplies, urinals, EKG stickers, medicine cups, lab bags, masks, gloves, and gowns. Convenience, cost, and safety are all considered when it comes to ordering these supplies.
Hospitals produce 6 million tons of medical waste every year. Each patient bed accounts for over 29 pounds of hospital waste every day. Not only is this expensive, but it is incredibly unsustainable for the planet. Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being used each month and will move up the timeline of more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2048.
How can you help your hospital, and ultimately the environment?
Join a committee:
Many hospitals already have a variety of ERG’s (Employee Resource Groups). A “green” or environmental committee is likely to need more members to help with sustainability initiatives around the hospital. These committees can make important changes. The key is showing your administration how these improvements will enhance the company’s appearance to the public and be a long-term financial benefit.
If there is not a committee in place, start one! I have personally started many different types of committees at hospitals where I’ve worked. The first step is getting the conversation started. If you’re concerned about things that need to change, chances are you’re not the only one. Set up a meeting by putting out a blurb in the staff e-newsletter, sending an email, and putting up flyers in all departments. It’s a good idea to get environmental services, and a manager involved, so that action items have obtainable influence behind them.
Identify areas of improvement:
- Drinking cups: Often, hospitals buy the cheapest cups in bulk. These are made of styrofoam or plastic. Styrofoam alone takes at least five hundred years to decompose.
- Advocate for paper or corn-based cups. There are several sustainable products from companies like Eco-Products ® (Link), making disposable cups, containers, utensils, and straws.
- Plastic straws: Not every patient needs a straw to take their medication. By now, most of us have seen that awful video of the turtle getting a plastic straw pulled out of their nose. Plastic straws end up in the landfill, harm sea life, and litter beaches. Don’t automatically grab a straw. Determine if your patient needs one for their safety or if they can do without one.
- Advocate for paper or corn-based straws.
- Patient trays and pre-made foods: The universal hospital turkey sandwich is encased in a non-recyclable, non-biodegradable container, like styrofoam or plastic. Food trays delivered to patients are often on styrofoam plates with plastic lids, which all end up in the trash.
- Alternative: Washable plates and lids or sustainable plate and container materials.
- Cafeteria and in-patient foods: The most sustainable and healthful foods are plant-based.
- See last month’s blog: Hospital Cafeteria: How to Survive 12 Hours as a Vegan Nurse.
- Laundered gowns: Many hospitals are experiencing limited PPE availability during this COVID-19 pandemic. The available gowns are plastic and single-use. These big sheets of plastic will end up in our landfills and oceans.
- My local hospital asked our community to make gowns with a specific sewing pattern. These gowns are made of washable fabric and placed into a specific linens bag after each use. Once laundered, they are ready to be worn again.
First, ensure there are recycling bins throughout your department, especially in break rooms and supply rooms where boxes are emptied and broken down. This is often just a simple conversation with an environmental service manager. Each city has different recycling standards, so it is important to find out what your city accepts. Many of your local recycling plants have a handout or info-graphic that you can print out and put on or above the trash and recycling cans in your institution.
A hospital representative had told me that empty IV bags and casings could be recycled. After speaking with the city recycling experts, I learned that was not true. Misinformation of what can and can’t be recycled can make things much worse. If non-recyclable material ends up in the recycle bin, it ends up costing more all around. Plastic bags and other items not meant for the sorting machines often get caught and delay processing.
I took these photos of all the single-use supplies I used on a shift that inevitably goes into the landfill. This was pre-pandemic and happened to be a relatively easy day, with no codes or immensely critical patients, which would have at least doubled this haul.
The amount of waste and unsustainable practices we encounter at the hospital can feel overwhelming. Start by taking small steps to create changes in your department. By speaking up, making suggestions, and advocating for a greener future, you can make a huge difference.