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July 2009
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Reducing Waste in Our Hospitals

Recently I was visiting someone in the hospital and it caught me by surprise just how much waste a hospital produces each day. Don’t get me wrong patient health and safety is paramount but I was curious if there were steps being taken to reduce the amount of waste created.

From the bandages, to the needles, to the latex gloves, everything comes in a sealed, sanitary package. Without even doing any research I noticed that the paper of the packaging could be recycled and I would think the plastic half could be made with a compostable plastic. Those latex gloves I wasn’t sure about, but could we put an additive in them to get them to break down?

Current Waste Treatment Measures

Undeniably the waste that comes out of hospitals is scary, it can be seriously infectious disease material and if not handled correctly could start an epidemic. According to the World Wildlife Foundation the most common practice to deal with the waste is incineration; first because it is thought the heat is the best method at destroying the infectious disease and second because from an economic standpoint it makes the waste smaller, meaning less landfill space.

If we look at this from a triple bottom line perspective (Social, Economic, Environment) we satisfy the first two; socially we are protecting the people by destroying disease and economically this is the most cost effective method for dealing with waste. However, the environment is sacrificed as noxious gases and excess heat are released into the atmosphere.

There are ways of treating the waste without incineration including steam autoclaving, chemical treatments and microwave radiation. None of these however deal with the pathological waste where either burial or incineration are needed.

What are hospitals doing to reduce waste?

The Californian Waste Management Board put together an online case study of Waste Reduction Activities for hospitals. Although all of them seemed fairly small in scope the overall reduction was quite impressive.

Med Assets has a set of links for general waste to toxic waste management for hospitals.

More locally the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto has a ‘green’ mandate. And Sunnybrooke Health and Science Centre is not only looking at waste minimization but making it’s campus more ‘green’ overall.

What was interesting with all the hospital programs was the that they advocated a basic recycling program, which means that most of them likely don’t have one of these yet. It is about the small steps we can take to eventually reach the ultimate goal.