Hospitals produce tonnes of plastic waste annually – How can they reduce this?

Hospitals produce tonnes of plastic waste annually – How can they reduce this?
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As a result of the COVID-19, hospitals have increased infection control procedures resulting in an increased use of – and at times over use of – single use plastics. Though this is not a new issue brought on by the pandemic, the increased use of single-use plastics in the healthcare setting has been a concern for some time. How can hospitals reduce plastic consumption while maintaining appropriate infection control procedures? 

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals have increased infection control procedures resulting in an increased use of single use plastics. Masks, gloves, and other PPE supplies have led to an increase in the amount of medical waste that is produced by hospitals.

This is not a new issue, however, brought on by the pandemic. The increased use of single-use plastics in healthcare has been a concern for some time. Healthcare decision makers have begun to lead the way on this- creating initiatives to benefit the environment. To date they have cut out tonnes of plastic waste and as a result are saving the NHS thousands

What types of plastic waste do hospitals produce and why is it a problem?

Hospitals use plastics in a variety of ways from disposable plastic syringes and prosthetics to surgical devices. When first introduced into hospitals, single-use plastics were an attractive option as it allowed for maintenance of a sterile environment and infected plastic material could be easily disposed of. For equipment such as syringes this is vital. However, the sheer quantity of single use plastics being used in hospitals is becoming alarming, particularly considering the overuse or unnecessary use of single-use plastics (Learn More).

This is a worldwide issue as the AAMC found that globally 4.4% of all greenhouse gas emissions and over 5 million tonnes of waste come from hospitals[1]. The NHS creates 133,000 tonnes of plastic annually with only 5% of it being recyclable[2]. To tackle this issue in the UK, the NHS announced its For a Greener NHS[3] campaign which aims to significantly reduce the healthcare systems carbon footprint and its production of plastic waste.

The initiative includes actions such as:

  • NHS Plastics Pledge – Yorkshire ambulance service NHS Trust alone removed 200,000 single use plastic items from its waste in 2019/20
  • Net Zero Carbon Hospital Standard – all new NHS hospitals will use innovative, low carbon materials and be designed in a manner that enables flexibility in healthcare
  • Research & Innovation – the NHS has committed to introducing innovative technology to help lower its carbon footprint by switching from disposable to re-usable equipment as set out in their paper Delivering a Net Zero National Health Service.

 So, how can hospitals reduce plastic waste?

Responsible procurement

Responsibility to reduce hospital waste begins at the purchasing process.

The Royal College of Physicians outlines 12 principles to reduce waste[4]. Within their guidance they highlight the importance of selecting products for use in the healthcare setting that provide positive environmental impact. In fact, where possible they recommend environmentally friendly products should be used over alternatives.

Hospitals can make small changes which have a big environmental impact, by investing in innovative technology that negates the need for plastic waste. Hospitals have typically used traditional contact thermometers which require disposable plastic probe covers changed at every temperature reading. An average hospital takes approximately 2-3 million temperature readings every year, this results in 2-3 million single use plastics.

By upgrading to a non-contact thermometer, such as TRITEMP™, hospitals eliminate the use, and therefore disposal, of millions of plastic probe covers.

Mindful Use of Plastic

Healthcare Professionals are becoming more mindful of plastic use and whether or not it is in fact necessary. For example, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) found that there is a prominent overuse of surgical gloves within healthcare settings. Gloves are implemented to reduce risk of cross infection by creating a barrier between the Healthcare Professional and the patient. However, this can be counterproductive as the overuse of disposable gloves may lead to poor hand hygiene among Healthcare Professionals which would naturally increase infection risk[5].

Therefore, it is important for Healthcare Professionals to think before deferring to disposable plastics and these should not be used as the sole method of infection reduction.

Recycle where possible

The most difficult aspect of plastic use in hospitals is the disposal of the plastic waste. Healthcare waste is segregated, separating domestic waste from infectious waste. The most common waste in a hospital is clinical waste (e.g. gloves, bandages, probe covers, aprons that have come into contact with bodily fluids). This type of waste requires expensive treatment and disposal – typically 3.5 times the cost of domestic waste3.

Where possible wards should look to ways to divert or prevent waste going to landfill sites or incineration plants. One method of doing this is encouraging the use of recycling where possible. It is estimated that 1500 UK hospitals produce 2,250 tonnes of PVC waste could have been recycled4. RECOMED is a scheme running in 5 trusts throughout the UK which works with hospitals to identify high usage areas of PVC products that could be recycled. Since this scheme began over 5,000kg3 of non-infectious PVC (e.g. oxygen masks, tubing etc.) has been recycled.

Tips for getting hospital buy in

The environmental impact of reducing plastic waste is obvious, particularly in hospital settings. However, some Healthcare Professionals may not be swayed by the environmental benefits of reducing plastic use alone. An additional benefit is that the reduction of single-use plastics can lead to significant cost savings.

Plastic is often viewed as the cheaper alternative; however, many fail to realise the total cost involved in purchasing, storing and safely disposing of these single-use plastics. A Toronto based hospital managed to cut their disposables costs by 30% and save $750,000 dollars from a department through cutting down on their use of single use surgical supplies[6].

For more information about how to reduce plastic in your hospital email 


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