Five million tons. It is an amount that is almost inconceivable. Yet as an industry, it should be a number that is top of mind. Five million tons is the startling amount of waste that the entire U.S. health sector produces annually. If we narrow that number to the facility level, it’s about 28 pounds of total waste per bed, per day, based on Practice Greenhealth’s Sustainability Benchmark Report.
Not only is this waste taking up space in our landscapes, but landfill food waste also produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas with 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. Incinerated waste produces greenhouse gases while concurrently emitting dioxins, heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium, and other toxic substances. In addition, incinerators emit more CO2 per megawatt-hour than any fossil fuel-based power source—including coal-fired power plants—and have been linked to an increased risk of asthma in surrounding communities. Waste is also transported in trucks to landfills and treatment facilities, another source of greenhouse gas generation. And while recycling is great, segregating, transporting and marketing health care plastics is an ongoing challenge.
All of this waste also impacts a facility’s bottom line, as waste costs can be substantial. Practice Greenhealth’s Greenhealth Cost of Ownership Calculator sheds light on the importance of looking at a product’s total cost of ownership, including its waste costs, which can be significant in the long run. In some cases, the total costs for traditional products can be higher over the product’s life, compared to an environmentally preferable option.
Waste reduction, however, begins not at the trash heap, but during procurement. Nearly all waste that leaves a hospital comes in through purchasing, creating a natural opportunity to address the issue through strategies such as contracting for reusables or remanufactured products, supplier take-back programs, recyclable or minimized packaging, and other opportunities for products purchased to minimize waste.
Environmentally preferable purchasing asks suppliers how their products address waste minimization through contracting by asking product questions such as the following: Is this a multi-use product (not a single-patient use)? Is this product designed to be reprocessable? Is the product recyclable? Is the packaging recyclable? Does the supplier offer take-back programs for reuse and recycling of the products at end of use?
All of these represent significant opportunities for hospitals to meet waste reduction goals, save money and conserve natural resources, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, in a measurable way (the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, has an excellent Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator that helps health systems and others translate abstract measurements into concrete terms).
As an industry, our mandate is to prevent and cure disease. The delivery of these vital health services should not come at the price of significant environmental health impacts, including the generation of waste resulting from service delivery.
President and Founder