Working and volunteering in the hospital, I've come to notice the vast amount of plastic that makes it to the trash every day. Even just the amount of latex gloves that I go through in a day is shocking, despite my efforts to to be as conservative as possible.
A study by Thiel et al. found that a single hysterectomy produced 20 pounds of waste including plastic, packaging, drapes, etc. There don't seem to many recent studies on the amount of waste hospitals produce in total, but a survey from 1989 estimated it to be around 6,600 tons of waste daily. That's 2.3 million tons of waste per year! My estimate was that the number is even higher, considering the fact that the study is 30 years old and the general increase in waste over the years.
However, doing more research into hospital plastic use, I found the situation to be surprisingly more optimistic than I'd anticipated.
An article by Recycling Today dispels some of the myths surrounding plastic use in health care systems. For example, there is the misconception that plastic from hospitals is un-recyclable due to contact with biohazardous material. However, most plastics used in hospitals and clinics never come into contact with the patient, such as the clear film wrapping of medical tools.
The end market for hospital plastic is actually quite large. Many of the plastic tools used in hospitals are made of high quality polypropylene, which is in high demand due to its universal applications for blending and pelletizing. Some of the plastic is actually recycled back into hospitals by companies that create polypropylene sterilization wraps for medical supplies.
The Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC) has a tool called HospiCycle, which provides hospitals with resources, guide, and tools to begin cycling plastic, from metrics collection to economic analysis. It was encouraging to see such steps already in place.
The most important thing for hospitals to do in terms of plastic use is to maintain strong partnerships and communication with recycling companies. Education of employees is also key, such that the entire hospital can work together to ensure all waste is disposed of properly.
Recycling at UCLA hospitals
I've already seen strong recycling efforts in the UCLA hospitals I work at. Where as blood pressure cuffs used to be single use, there is now a collection bin where cuffs can be collected, cleaned, and reused.
I took a few moments at work to snap a couple pictures of all the plastic things I could find.
Just look at the supply room, the plastic sheen of all the wrappings is immediately apparent.
The wooden sticks and Q-tips doctors use all the time in check ups. Also wrapped in plastic.
One thing I did note however is that the gloves in office were actually made of nitrile, not latex. I did some research and found that there is currently a strive to move toward non-powdered latex gloves due to the amount of people allergic to latex, not to mention nitrile is sturdier and comparable in manufacturing cost. And it turns out nitrile can be recycled! Although they shouldn't be thrown in the standard recycling bins.
Unfortunately, I didn't see any recycling cans and all waste goes into the same container. Perhaps there's a process to separate the waste from recyclables already in place that I don't know of? I'm strongly considering whether I should write a letter to the hospital and ask if they have recycling options in place. I think just having a separate container for plastic wrapping would make a large difference. I know that UCLA has a strong concern for environmental safety, so I would hope they listen.
“HospiCycle Overview | HPRC.” Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council HPRC, www.hprc.org/hospicycle-overview.
Bryant, Alison. “Health Care Plastics: Untapped Feedstock, Untapped Business Opportunity.” Recycling Today, Recycling Today, 8 Aug. 2017, www.recyclingtoday.com/article/health-care-plastics-recycling-opportunities/.
Rastogi, Nina Shen. “How Much Trash Do Hospitals Produce?” Slate Magazine, Slate, 19 Oct. 2010, slate.com/technology/2010/10/how-much-trash-do-hospitals-produce.html.
Rutala WA, Odette RL, Samsa GP. Management of Infectious Waste by US Hospitals. JAMA.1989;262(12):1635–1640. doi:10.1001/jama.1989.03430120089027
Thiel, Cassandra L, et al. “Environmental Impacts of Surgical Procedures: Life Cycle Assessment of Hysterectomy in the United States.” Environmental Science & Technology, American Chemical Society, 3 Feb. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25517602.