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Medical waste is one of the most important types of waste management and reduction for the environment. Hospitals can significantly reduce their waste by combining waste prevention with a comprehensive recycling effort.

Hospitals also have different waste requirements than other types of industries. “Red bag” waste at a hospital requires strict regulations that hospitals are aware of on a local, state and national level. This material, which is specially handled and can be a high cost item for hospitals, should always be managed as it has been in the past.

Waste Reduction Tips 

Many waste prevention practices save money. Waste prevention, waste reduction and recycling, and the combination of all of these makes good sense for hospitals.

Understand what you buy, how you use what you buy and what you throw away.  Put this information to use to find ways to reduce, reuse and recycle.  Nonhazardous waste is 3/4 of the waste generated in hospitals, a substantial amount. 

Evaluate the largest part of the waste stream first. Paper is usually the largest part of the waste stream of a hospital. This would include cardboard, high-grade office paper, newspaper and mixed paper. Other highly generated recyclable materails in hospitals are plastics, food waste, and disposable linens (a combination of paper and other materials).

Some ideas to identify waste reduction opportunities at your hospital: 

  • Ordering: Evaluate and improve ordering practices to eliminate outdating and waste of perishable products.

  • Cleaning: Buy cleaning substances in 55-gallon refillable drums and use concentrated cleaning solutions that staff mixes as needed. Use washable mop heads instead of disposable ones.

  • Waste Hauling: Renegotiate contracts with waste haulers.

  • Administrative: Share magazines and journals between departments to reduce multiple subscriptions.

  • Employees: Set up an area for employees to share gently used items such as binders, folders, containers, etc.

Recycling Tips 

In addition to other considerations such as reducing waste, it should be a goal to screen or limit purchases for products to those that are made from recycled materials. The more consumers and businesses follow this philosophy the more it will create demand for recycled materials. Also, whenever possible and appropriate employees should be rewarded for their contributions to waste reduction efforts and ideas.   

  • Bathrooms: Use air dryers instead of paper towels.

  • Patients: Instead of disposable diapers, use cloth diapers. Be sure to check with sanitary regulations.

  • Admissions: Use reusables in patient rooms versus disposables (bed pans, water pitchers etc.)

  • Patient Rooms: Use washable items, such as linens, bed pads, gowns, etc.   Set up a volunteer program to recycle used blankets, mattress pads, and quilts into potholders.

  • Nursing: Personal care items such as aspirin packets, tissues, shampoo, baby wipes and diapers may be able to be used versus throwing them away.  Be sure to check for infection control guidelines).

  • Surgery: Evaluate the items in your surgical packs to determine if any item is not used enough to be used in every standard surgical pack. Switch to reusable medical instruments instead of disposable. Use washable surgical and nursing gowns and sterilization trays.  

  • Nursing: Reuse plastic fracture pans and graduated measuring containers.

  • Cafeteria: Use washable plates, utensils, and cups. Compost kitchen and food waste.

  • Administration: Store records on microfiche.  Make double-sided copies. Keep hardcopy memo distribution to a minimum.  Use email instead.

These are items that are recycled in many hospitals:

White office paper

Corrugated cardboard

Mixed paper

Steel cans (used by food service)

Aluminum cans

Glass bottles

Hospital Case studies: plans in action

  • The New York City Department of Sanitation estimates that a l,000-bed hospital switching from disposable to reusable containers for sharp medical instruments would achieve:

          Cost savings per year: $175,000

          Waste prevention in pounds per year: 34,000

  • Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital (341 beds) in Portland, Oregon switched from buying juice in 32-oz glass containers to 60-oz plastic containers that the hospital recycles.

                    Cost savings per year: $125

                    Waste prevention in pounds per year: 2,500

  • Kaiser Permanente's Northwest Region switched from disposable to cloth diapers. Any hospital making this change needs to follow procedures for infection control and skin care. Kaiser found there was no change in costs or savings it was a cost neutral change:

                    There was no adverse effect on patient or staff safety.

                    It decreased the amount of solid waste going to landfills.

  • Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland, Oregon (341-bed facility) purchased several hundred permanent waterproof mattresses to replace about 96 percent of disposable egg crate foam mattresses (it is still necessary to use foam mattresses in some situations). The initial purchase was significant but the decision paid for itself in just one year:

                    Savings in purchasing costs per year: $80,710

                    Disposal savings per year: $817

                    Waste prevention in pounds per year: 16,350

Source: American Hospital Association, An Ounce of Prevention: Waste Reduction Strategies for Health Care Facilities (recommended by several recycling coordinators, includes waste prevention).

Recycling and waste management are important steps for hospital administration to consider and implement before it’s too late. These steps above give a proven cost-effective approach that helps both the business bottom line and the environment.


Contributor / Editor - Matt Kennedy - Refer questions to info@wastecare.com  

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