Such a Waste
by Jennifer Weiss -- June 15th, 2012
I’m not a big fan of hospitals. Oh, I know the great things that they can do to keep us healthy, but they make me nervous. I’m not exactly sure why. It could be because I don’t understand the medical lingo. It could be because of the pain and suffering that I know lies behind the patient doors and I am unable to offer any assistance. It could be a variety of things, but most recently it is because I have witnessed the tremendous amount of waste and inefficient energy use that flows out of hospitals and I am unable to see how to offer sustainable recommendations without risking a decline in quality patient care. There’s a fine line between a sterile first-time use of medical equipment and a sterilized, re-manufactured second-time use of the same equipment. I’m not exactly sure why, but as a culture we have in our minds that only first time use is acceptable. Especially if you are the patient that is using the equipment.
I read a report in the Scientific American recently that said that health care facilities dispose of more than four million pounds of medical waste each year. That certainly seems like a lot of waste, but I didn’t realize how much of it is unnecessary until I spent a few nights in the hospital last week. As a hospital patient I was relieved to see that my equipment, surgical tools, syringes and other medical devices were all sterilized, in their own bags and seemingly unused by other humans. But as an environmentalist, a part of me cringed each time I saw another piece of waste hit the trash can. Even worse, some of the waste had not even been used, but was part of a larger “kit” of supplies. Double cringe.
And yet every time I was administered a drug, I was relieved to see that each of my syringes, IVs and tubes were individually wrapped and new. If one of my syringes had come with a “made from 30% recyclable material” sticker on it, I might have sent it back and requested a brand new one. But why is that? I have no trouble eating my food off of reusable dishes. I reuse my water bottle on a daily basis and I am quite certain it is not cleaned under the most sterile of conditions. I reuse toothbrushes, contacts, and other toiletries regularly. All of these are by no mean sterile, but are being put into my body. What makes it so different?
The answer, I’m afraid, lies in the fact that we have come to equate “quality medical care” with “single use” devices. Despite the fact that much of the medical equipment and supplies we use today can be “reprocessed” to be as high quality as first time use, many of us (myself included) prefer to see that the supplies being used on us have not been used by others. And so, the medical waste piles up as elastic bandages, pressure infuser bags, tourniquet cuffs, drills, compression sleeves, and general-use surgical scissors are thrown into the trash can rather than put aside to be reprocessed – cleaned, sterilized, and tested for quality – and individually wrapped for another patient’s use.
Unfortunately, the waste is not occurring just in hospitals. After developing a slight infection following my surgery two weeks ago, I was required to take a twice-daily infusion of an antibiotic. Only not in the hospital – this infusion I would do at home. The day I arrived home, I received a huge box filled with elastomeric (accuflo) pumps, saline syringes, heparin syringes, alcohol wipes, bandages, surgical tape and a lot of other supplies that I’m not even sure how to use. Twice a day, I get an infusion and use one pump, two saline syringes, and two heparin syringes. If I’m doing the math right, that equates to 28 pumps and 112 syringes over the 2 week period that I received the infusions. And they all get thrown in the trash when I am done. I had inquired about how to recycle them and received a funny look in return. So each day my trash can fills up with the used medical supplies. Supplies I’m very sure could be reprocessed if given a chance.
I am not a medical expert or an expert in hospitality sustainability, but I am a medical consumer. Although I want my medical environment to be as safe and sterile as possible, I know that there must be a way to reduce the waste associated with it. We cannot continue to throw this waste into our landfills and assume that it will do no harm. If it can be used to improve the health of one person, we certainly don’t want it to cause harm to another down the road.