Single-use plastic and COVID-19: how can we reduce medical waste?

As you may know, plastics can be full of toxic chemicals! The pandemic has created a lot of single-use plastic waste that has a big impact on the environment. Continue reading to learn more about single-use plastics in the medical field and what you can do to help reduce waste!

You might have seen the recent pictures.

Masks and gloves are littering cities and beaches due to the coronavirus pandemic

There has also been a spike in medical waste from hospitals and testing sites. Medical workers need more personal protective equipment, and there are, unfortunately, more patients

This has prompted waste management leaders to ask for looser government regulations.

In February, a new medical waste facility was constructed in Wuhan, China in response to the virus.

It is true that there have been recent increases in medical waste. Yet, large amounts of single use plastic waste is a norm for healthcare.

What is medical waste?

Hospitals and healthcare systems generate around 23 thousand pounds of waste per day. Half of this waste is plastic. A single hysterectomy procedure generates 17 pounds of plastic waste.

Plastic has been used in medicine since the middle of the 20th century. It replaced glass and metal to become the primary material in medical devices. Plastic is durable and flexible. This makes it ideal for modern equipment like fluid bags, IVs, and surgical gloves.

Single-use plastic has changed the way hospitals operate. The ability to dispose of medical equipment after a single use reduces cross-contamination. Bacterial contamination was once so common that it caused the death of a U.S. president.  

Plastic revolutionized the medical industry. Single-use plastic ensures that all equipment is sterile. In essence, single-use plastic waste saves lives.

What happens to medical waste?

Biohazardous waste is collected in biohazard bins and sent to a treatment facility. There, the waste enters a steam autoclave which heats and melts it down to an unrecognizable blob. After cooling, that blob is sent to a landfill.

But biohazardous waste makes up only 15% of total hospital waste. The majority of hospital waste consists of non-hazardous materials: boxes, packaging, etc. 

This non-contaminated material could be reduced and redirected from landfills. 

Most plastic items take around 1,000 years to decompose in a landfill. And 4% of the world’s fossil fuels are dedicated to the production of plastic.

Beyond requirements for safety and sterility, hospitals should not ignore their environmental impacts. The medical world should join other industries and rethink the way it produces and manages waste. 

Reducing medical waste

The COVID-19 pandemic has demanded more precaution when dealing with medical waste. Hospitals have been taking necessary measures to keep medical workers and patients safe. But they can also take modest steps to reduce their impact on the environment. 

  • Greenhealth Exchange
    Greenhealth Exchange (GX) provides a green marketplace of medical supplies and equipment. GX screens these products to meet requirements of the Healthier Hospitals Initiative. This program lays out steps to help hospitals consume less and recycle more. 

  • Practice Greenhealth
    Practice Greenhealth offers resources to help hospitals and health care systems. Their goal is to reduce the global footprint of the medical system.

  • Reduction of unnecessary waste
    Researchers analyzed waste in an operating room. They found a lot of waste generation occurred when surgeons used only one or two items from large instrument sets. They recommended rethinking which items are needed in disposable packs.

What can you do?

As an individual, you can also take steps to reduce waste during this time.

  • Masks. Cloth masks are effective for most public uses. They help protect those around you, and are reusable! Make sure they fit tightly around your face and nose. Wash them regularly.

  • Gloves. The use of gloves can be helpful, but most people do not use or dispose of them correctly. This can increase contamination. When going out, gloves are not necessary. Instead, avoid touching your phone and face, use hand sanitizer, and wash your hands well after you return home.

  • Stay safe, protect others. Follow social distancing and state COVID-19 guidelines. The more we can slow the spread of this disease, the less waste will be produced because of it.