Op Ed: Medical supply waste a top source of US greenhouse gas emissions

Medical waste from hospitals and health systems is one of the top contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and disposable medical supplies play a primary role, according to a  column written by Alan Robin, MD, emeritus associate professor of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and Sathvik Namburar, a medical student at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. 

In the column, published April 23 in The Baltimore Sun, Dr. Robin and Mr. Namburar write that if the American healthcare sector was its own country, it would be the 13th largest source of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and the primary contributor is supply waste from hospitals and health centers. 

While there isn't much data on how much waste is produced per patient, a 2010 study estimated that each staffed hospital bed results in 33.8 pounds of waste per day, the authors wrote. The waste ranges from gloves and gowns to surgical supplies and medicine containers. 

Each year, hospitals in the U.S. dispose of 2 million pounds of supplies that were never used, costing $15 million annually, the authors wrote. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the need for better disposal of medical waste. If personal protective equipment were able to be sanitized and reused, shortages may not have been so severe, Dr. Robin and Mr. Namburar state. The vaccine rollout will also contribute to significant medical waste as millions of syringes and vials will need to be disposed of, they said. 

Research has shown that switching to reusable materials results in hospitals producing significantly less medical waste per patient and doesn't have an effect on patient outcomes, the authors concluded. 

Read the full Baltimore Sun column here


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