Ways to Reduce Plastic Waste in Hospitals

Ways to Reduce Plastic Waste in Hospitals
2 March 2023

Ways to Reduce Plastic Waste in Hospitals

In today’s world, the healthcare industry is heavily highly reliant on plastic, particularly single-use items, and this comes at a price to our planet if not carefully managed. Global plastic waste is set to triple by 2060, according to an OECD report on plastic use. Making steps towards reducing the amount of plastic waste produced and rethinking the way we approach plastic use is paramount if we want to protect our environment and our future on ths planet.

Reducing plastic waste that gets incinerated or goes into landfill in healthcare is vital. According to WRAP, the Waste and Resources Action Programme, just 7% of healthcare plastic waste is recycled. This percentage can be increased with a few simple steps.

ESG responsibilities should be a vital part of any business plan. In this article, we look at the steps to increase recycling in healthcare and how to find sustainable alternatives to plastic use.

Steroplast Healthcare are committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2035 when we plan to have reduced our emissions by 100%.
See our complete Carbon Reduction Commitment here.

woman health workers remove a bag of garbage at a hospital

1. Conduct a Plastic Waste Audit

Waste audits quantify plastic waste in healthcare and reveal any potential inefficiencies and opportunities for improvement, such as increased segregation or reduced unnecessary use. 

In a waste audit, the business should collect and sort waste in a specific area over a specific period of time. Here are the steps healthcare facilities should use to conduct a waste audit.

1. Define the scope

The audit must reflect an accurate representation of the waste production in the given area. Select the location first. Is it going to cover one ward, department, or a whole hospital? Select the duration of the audit. A good duration is 48 hours over weekdays.

On-board staff, so everyone involved is clear and up-to-speed on the audit, and no waste will slip through the gaps. Staff or volunteers must also be assigned to sort the collected waste and record data.

Hand putting used dirty surgical mask to a garbage bin

2.  Prepare resources

The facility should prepare adequate space and equipment to safely collect and store the waste. It's important to store the waste in a safe place that won't put anyone in danger, one far away from clean hospital supply storage (preferably with a washable floor), and a secure location where it won't be accidentally tampered with. Remember to maintain clearly segregated areas for different types of waste.

Another resource you must consider is staff involvement and volunteers to sort the waste. All staff should be informed of the waste audit and trained in the processes you plan to carry out to collect the waste. Involve as many people as possible to get a good scope of the reality of waste production in the facility.

Finally, take stock of the equipment you need to store and sort the waste in your audit. Clinical waste is potentially hazardous and should be treated with absolute care. Use the table below to determine the equipment you need.

Empty Storage Room With Supplies In Modern Hospital Building
Personal protection to keep waste sorting volunteers safe.
  • Face masks (FFP3 respirators are ideal as they protect the wearer from inhaling airborne droplets and aerosol particles).
  • Nitrile gloves (which are tear and puncture-proof).
  • Safety glasses.
  • Aprons or overalls (preferably reusable).
  • Closed-toe shoes.
Equipment for physically handling the waste.
  • Litter pickers or tongs to sort the waste safely.
  • Sorting tables or an adequate area.
  • Waste containers to dispose of the waste safely after sorting.
  • Scales for weighing the waste if needed.
  • Containers to help with weighing the waste.
  • Supplies for documenting the audit outcome, including records and a camera.
Safety measures.

3. Collecting the waste and preparation

Collect waste by providing cages or large containers where waste is usually disposed of so that bags are retained and transported to the waste storage area. Staff should be briefed that any bags of waste being collected must be clearly labelled with their location, such as the ward, and waste streams should be kept separate. 

Prepare your sorting area by placing a protective covering on the floor if needed and assembling tables with containers for each type of waste. Ensure relevant waste containers are ready nearby to dispose of waste that has been sorted and weighed. Also, ensure there is a separate container to dispose of contents such as food and liquid found in plastic containers in the waste.

Used medical and dressing clinical and hospital equipment like syringe, cotton in dustbin

4. Carrying out the audit

Sort one type of waste at a time, starting with general waste and recycling, then moving to clinical waste. The process for each bag of waste should be:

  1. Write down the area the waste was collected from and the type of waste.
  2. Weigh the bag and record the number.
  3. Place the bag in the sorting area and open it. 
  4. Dispose of any food or liquid into the relevant container.
  5. Remove any other non-plastic waste but leave plastic waste bags.
  6. Separate the items into categories and sub-categories. 

Download this plastic waste audit database created by Healthcare Without Harm. This template helps you sort your plastic waste into the recommended categories and sub-categories and format the data to determine how much plastic waste is generated.

  1. Weight and record what each item is. Group identical items together and photograph unrecognised items, including their markings and labels.
  2. Weight the non-plastic waste to determine the percentage of plastic waste.
  3. Input the data into your records.
  4. Dispose of the sorted waste.

Once the audit is complete, the whole sorting area should undergo a deep cleaning.

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2. Create and Action Plan

The aim of a new action plan is to support a circular economy and improve workplace sustainability KPIs. A circular economy is a concept that aims to reduce, reuse, repurpose, and recycle materials for as long as possible to keep them in use and minimise the creation of new materials. Following the zero-waste hierarchy is important as this ensures you dispose of as little waste as possible and always prioritise preventing waste from going to landfill or being incinerated.

Stages to reducing waste production

No two action plans will look the same as each organisation functions differently and must seek unique processes to ensure it fully optimises plastic waste reduction. Using the data collected from your plastic waste audit, you can gain input and feedback from partners, stakeholders, suppliers, and staff to seek opportunities and new perspectives on reducing waste.

For example, switching to infrared thermometers would eliminate the need to use plastic probe thermometer covers, so you could check if your supplier offers this and similar alternatives.

According to Healthcare Without Harm, organisations participating in a plastic waste audit study proposed the following action plans.

  • Plastic consumption monitoring.
  • Reduce plastic items’ weight through collaboration with suppliers.
  • Reduce consumption of disposable medical plastics through the use of reusable gowns.
  • Replace plastic containers in IV administration systems with glass ones.
  • Reduce the consumption of examination gloves through information and awareness campaigns.
  • Reduce plastic in food services with reusable tableware and alternative materials, and increase the use of tap water.
  • Reduce the use of non-hazardous waste collection bags through optimisation processes and the introduction of alternative items.
  • Introduce reusable containers for hazardous waste collection.
  • Reduce plastic in the laundry by replacing polyethylene packaging with smaller paper packaging.
  • Reduce plastic waste destined for landfill through improved waste collection and segregation.
  • Reduce direct exposure to micro and nano-plastics by replacing plastic milk containers with glass in the neonatal and neonatal ICU units.

3. Adapt Procurement Policies

The aim of a new action plan is to support a circular economy and improve workplace sustainability KPIs. A circular economy is a concept that aims to reduce, reuse, repurpose, and recycle materials for as long as possible to keep them in use and minimise the creation of new materials. Following the zero-waste hierarchy is important as this ensures you dispose of as little waste as possible and always prioritise preventing waste from going to landfill or being incinerated.

Female Nurse Working with Storage

One of the best ways to reduce plastic waste is to intercept it at the procurement stage. This is more complicated than it sounds for healthcare organisations which rely so heavily on the benefits of plastic as a material. Plastic is cost-effective and versatile. Single-use plastic provides an easy means to maintain sterility and high levels of hygiene.

However, identifying where opportunities exist to reduce plastic means facilities can use only what is needed and balance safety and sustainability. Your plastic waste audit will be instrumental in determining just where you can reduce plastic procurement. 

The easiest first step in reducing plastic waste is cutting down on non-medical plastics and finding reusable alternatives. A good example of this is in hospital catering, where single-use cutlery (often made from generally non-recyclable polystyrene) can be replaced with metal utensils that can be sterilised. 

Read our article on material replacements for plastic in healthcare. We cover a few innovative alternatives some organisations are starting to use. One example is the medical-grade paper we use to create more sustainable first aid supplies for businesses. 

Our Eco First Aid Kit is made with 94% less plastic thanks to the use of medical-grade paper and card packaging and the 100% recycled box it comes in. Medical grade paper keeps contents like dressings sterile and won’t break down like normal paper. However, it can be recycled in normal paper recycling streams. 

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4. Raise Awareness and Train

Cheerful doctors multiracial team having breefing, discussing cases

Another small step with a big impact is staff training. Though staff must be trained on waste management within the facility, recycling and sustainability don’t generally take priority leading to these processes becoming overshadowed by hygiene and safety policies. For example, you may need to identify which types of plastic can be recycled and which cannot before putting them into the plastic recycling waste stream. Contamination of one recycling stream can cause problems down the line, and not all plastic products are marked with a resin ID code that indicates they are recyclable. 

Debriefing staff regularly on what to do with plastic waste and how to properly identify clinical waste helps keep plastic waste numbers down. As does training on when it’s acceptable not to use single-use plastics, so they aren’t overused.

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