Sustainable Healthcare: The Movement Toward Globally Green – Part 1: Barriers

“Going green” is a hot buzzword that many businesses throw around to appeal to the social media craze of global conservancy. But, what does it really mean? And, what are companies who boast this claim actually doing to protect and save the environment? For many companies, “going green” is used as a marketing tactic, the way a popular turkey producer labeled their Thanksgiving birds as “gluten-free” a few years ago. Putting a few recycling bins throughout your facility, a green environment does not make — but, it can help.

The medical industry, specifically, has many hurdles when it comes to going green. With all the single-use supplies, sterile packaging, and risk of contamination, the medical industry is a top producer of waste in the United States. Read our previous post to discover the facts about medical waste here. At EcoVue®, producing green products is so much more than a catchy color for our packaging, but the entire mission of our company and foundation of our products. Simple, safe, and sustainable.

Join us in today’s post as we discuss some of the movements the medical industry has made toward sustainability and some things we can still do to propel the movement. As one of the major industries in the world, it is up to us to make changes that set the expectations for other industries to safely follow.

Barriers to green healthcare and how to overcome them.

In the healthcare industry, there are many barriers to going completely green. Some of these barriers, we mentioned previously, including the risk of contamination and widespread use of single-use materials.

Production of medical products.

During the production of medical supplies, there is a common ideal that no cost or resource should be spared, after all, these products are meant to save lives. However, if more care was taken in the process of creating medical products rather than the consumption of resources, products could be both safe and environmentally conscious. In areas where there can be no compromise on the materials used in the manufacturing of products, EcoVue® has made major advancements in how those products are packaged and shipped to help reduce materials used as well as shipping and storage resources. Minor changes to small products in the medical industry can make a significant impact. For instance, our water-based ultrasound gel that is available in simple packets prevent 1.5 million plastic bottles from entering landfills each year. Just imagine if every product did this!

To overcome this barrier, medical supply ordering specialists can be more conservative on what is ordered and what companies medical supplies are ordered from. Ensure that products are only purchased from companies that use sustainable practices and resources. As with every industry, the medical industry is a business that operates on supply and demand. By choosing medical supply companies that recycle and reduce waste, you can help save your facility tens of thousands of dollars each year and you can help prevent thousands of tons of new resources being harvested for use in manufacturing and waste entering landfills.

When selecting medical supplies, choose those that:

  • Make products from recycled and recyclable products
  • Have as minimal packaging required for sterility
  • Avoids pre-packaged kits — make your own, tailored to provider’s actual usage
  • Has a program to reclaim unused, expired, or old supplies
  • Uses space-saving design
  • List tangible ways they are taking environmental responsibility seriously

Use of medical products.

The use of medical products is one of the biggest barriers to reducing waste and creating sustainability in the healthcare industry. Let’s use a simple example that is relatable to nearly everyone in the medical industry: alcohol swabs. Alcohol swabs typically come in boxes of 100 and are one-inch by one-inch two-ply wipes that are saturated in isopropyl alcohol. These one-by-one swabs are then packaged in four-layer foil and paper wrappers to prevent them from drying out or being compromised when handled. This makes them durable enough to be kept in first aid kits or medical professional’s pockets. These packets are two-inch by two-inch. 100 of them are gathered up and placed into a box which are then distributed for use. Now, imagine all the places you have seen a single alcohol swab laying about abandoned, never to be used — in the pen drawer at the nurse’s station, in your dryer after it fell out of your scrub top, or on the floor swept into the janitor’s dustpan. This is all too common, and it is suggested that out of a 100-count box of swabs, only about 70 are actually used. 30 pads out of each box are left unused, times 30 million boxes of alcohol swabs used by American hospitals (which does not account for other healthcare facilities, home health, emergency services, etc), means nearly 1 billion swabs and their packaging materials are wasted each year, not even used.

Another wasteful area of the use of medical products is when products are taken into patients’ rooms to keep rooms conveniently stocked. While this makes the jobs of medical professionals easier, once medical products enter a patient’s room, they are not typically collected and redistributed if they are unused, they are instead tossed out. This affects the bottom line for everyone when a patient is billed for supplies they never used and hospitals must restock unused equipment and supplies. Not only is this incredibly wasteful, but even more expensive. Each of these unused products means that resources must be used to create its replacement.  

To help overcome this barrier, medical staff should be trained on their impact of waste and how as just one in 18 million healthcare workers, if every medical employee wasted the one swab and pen and watched as their patient tossed a single water bottle in the trash, that at the end of the year, that is 18 million wasted swabs, pens, and plastic water bottles entering landfills, all of which could have been reduced, reused, or recycled.

Waste habits.

The culture of the healthcare industry is that once something is taken out of the box, it is no longer sterile or worthy of use. And, once used, it is a biohazard. The last decade has seen a dramatic shift in how the healthcare industry separates and treats various medical products. Rather than incinerating everything, more care is given to how medical rubbish is handled. Regulatory agencies have begun requiring the separation and proper disposal of waste. However, despite these major shifts, approximately 60% of medical waste is recyclable but not recycled.

These staggering numbers are, in large part, due to the culture of the healthcare industry and viewing everything as contaminated. There is a “better safe than sorry” thought process, and much more is tossed in the trash than recycled out of a just-in-case mentality. However, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 85% of hospital waste is noninfectious and poses no risk of injury or illness when recycled. It should also be noted that the recycling process includes multi-step sterilization. Additionally, some medical staff will argue that when human waste, blood, and other body fluids are involved, taking the measures to recycle everything that should or could be is not time or cost effective.

To overcome these barriers, facilities should educate all staff on proper waste disposal. The Cleveland Clinic implemented a recycling program and was able to recycle nearly 33% of their waste in a single year, and did so by reducing the amount of separation each staff member was responsible for and conducted sorting elsewhere on-site — also giving people with disabilities employment opportunities. Talk about sustainability. By reducing the number of steps that clinicians had to take, it improved the recycling rate dramatically.

The bottom line.

The single biggest barrier to widespread medical sustainability is cost. Products that are made and distributed using cheaply made products save hospitals millions of dollars each year. However, these prices and the perceived cost of being environmentally conscious are mostly just perceptions and a matter of semantics. Take, for instance, EcoVue Ultrasound Gel. Our prices are equivalent to similar products in the industry. However, our packaging is much smaller, meaning that there is less waste to be disposed of, less storage space used, and less shipping space and cost associated. This is great news, given the fact that medical waste disposal costs 119% more than nonmedical waste disposal, so reducing the amount of waste that must be processed means money saved.  

Many people believe that the healthcare industry may never be completely green, but at EcoVue®, we are dedicated to helping try. Reducing the amount of non-recycled medical waste from 60% to 50% can help keep a million tons out of landfills each year and allow that much product to be reused. And, that makes this a discussion worth having.

Stay tuned for part two of this three-part series where we offer some practical solutions on how your facility can make the progressive movement toward going green and sustainable healthcare.