The United States healthcare industry accounts for eight percent of the country’s total carbon emissions. Furthermore, US hospital patients generate about 33.8 pounds of waste daily (6 million tons annually).
While some waste in the medical field is inevitable, healthcare workers can still take steps to minimize the amount they and their patients produce. Over time, these small changes can lead to significant results.
This article evaluates some of the most common causes of medical waste, the challenges of managing them, and how to reduce waste throughout the entire industry.
Causes and Impacts of Medical Waste
A variety of items fall under the medical waste umbrella. The following are some well-known examples:
- Pathological waste: Tissues, organs, body parts, bodily fluids
- Human blood and blood products: Waste blood, serum, plasma
- Microbiological waste (cultures and stocks of infectious agents): Specimens from laboratories, discarded vaccines.
- Contaminated sharps: Needles, syringes, scalpels, pipettes, broken glass
- Isolation waste: Waste from isolated hospitalized patients with infectious diseases
- Contaminated animal body parts, carcasses, or bedding: Produced from animals exposed to pathogens for research, biological production, or in vivo pharmaceutical testing.
Exposure to these types of medical waste can contribute to the spread of disease throughout communities. When medical waste sits in landfills, it can also contribute to greenhouse gas production and emissions, worsening the effects of global warming.
Some facilities choose incineration over landfills as a waste management solution. However, incinerating such materials presents risks, including releasing potentially hazardous chemicals into the air.
Challenges of Managing Medical Waste
Several issues contribute to the United States’ (and the world’s) problems with medical waste. Some of the most pressing challenges are listed below:
- Poor separation practices, which cause medical waste to be mixed with general waste in hospitals and clinics
- Lack of education regarding strict medical waste disposal practices
- Lack of time due to staffing issues that prevent workers from upholding medical waste disposal guidelines
A lack of care or awareness from trash removal professionals may also contribute to medical waste mismanagement.
How to Reduce Medical Waste in the Healthcare Industry
Healthcare’s medical waste problem is complex, and it’s not up to one hospital or team of healthcare workers to solve it alone. However, if employees throughout the industry take steps to reduce medical waste, they can make a substantial difference.
The following are examples of how to minimize the waste produced by the healthcare industry:
Develop a Formal Waste Management Plan
A formal waste management plan provides a specific set of guidelines for all employees, from nurses and physicians to administrators, to follow.
This plan should include clear instructions for disposing of different types of waste. It should also feature insight into the harmful effects of medical waste mismanagement to encourage employees to participate in the program and abide by its rules.
Sharing information about the state’s specific medical waste regulations may also be helpful so everyone is aware of the potential fines the hospital may incur from poor waste management practices.
Choose Reusable and Washable Products When Possible
For health and safety purposes, many items used in hospitals and clinics are meant to be used once and then thrown away. However, several others can be cleaned and reused repeatedly.
For example, some sharps containers (used to collect needles and other sharp objects) can be disinfected and reused instead of thrown out. Facilities can also use cloth hospital gowns and linens instead of paper ones to reduce waste further.
Color-Code Waste Collection Containers
Color coding makes it easy for employees to know where to put certain types of waste. For example, green containers indicate a recycling container, and red containers are used for “red bag waste” (biohazardous items).
Separate Waste Collection Containers
When all waste collection containers are lined up side by side, it’s easy for workers to accidentally place items in the wrong receptacle.
Separating containers may create additional work for waste removal teams, but it also reduces the likelihood that waste will end up in an inappropriate location.
Conduct Regular Waste Audits
Regular waste audits allow administrators and other healthcare workers to ensure they abide by the facility’s waste management program and minimize waste as much as possible. A third-party organization or a hospital/clinic staff member may conduct these audits.
Depending on the audit results, employees may receive extra training to ensure they understand the importance of proper waste disposal and know the facility’s specific rules.
Prioritize Plastic Waste Recycling
Plastic is a fixture in many healthcare settings, used for irrigation bottles, sterilization wraps, plastic bags, and more.
By implementing a plastic waste recycling program, healthcare facilities can minimize the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills, where it takes decades or even hundreds of years to break down completely.
Encourage Employees to Recycle Old Scrubs
Clothing, including medical scrubs, thrown in the trash can take over 200 years to decompose in landfills. The fabrics also produce greenhouse gases and leak chemicals and dyes into groundwater during the decomposition process.
Healthcare employees should be encouraged to recycle their old scrubs or to use eco-friendly scrubs to reduce clothing waste. Hospitals and clinics may want to develop their own recycling program to make this process easier for employees.
Partner with Waste Reduction Specialists
Leaders in healthcare facilities can take many steps to reduce waste and minimize their carbon footprints. Creating effective plans can be challenging and time-consuming, though.
Partnering with waste reduction specialists with medical waste removal experience can help these facilities to achieve their goals and save money and time in the long run.
Administrators and managers should search for consultants in their area who can assist with waste audits and identify improvements that will produce the greatest benefits.
The proliferation of medical waste in the United States is a serious problem with short- and long-term risks, including penalties from federal organizations, the spread of disease, and the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The guidelines discussed above can help healthcare workers reduce medical waste and do their part to slow the effects of climate change.
Editor’s Note: Steven John Cumper, B.App.Sc. (Osteo.), M.Ost., is a businessman with a strong background in biomedical science and osteopathic medicine. He founded Medshop while studying at RMIT University in Australia, expanding its reach to markets in Papua New Guinea, Singapore, and Malaysia. In September 2021, the Bunzl Group acquired a majority stake in Medshop, but Cumper remains involved as the Managing Director (Medshop Group). His journey from Zimbabwe to the UK and Australia reflects his dedication to academia and entrepreneurship, combining diverse knowledge and experience.