Written by Dr Emma Hayes
When a patient goes to hospital, the amount of waste generated would be the last thing on their mind. Countless single-use items are disposed of in healthcare facilities across Australia each day, but the magnitude of this waste often remains hidden. The Victorian healthcare industry alone generated 42,000 tonnes of solid waste between 2010 and 2011, and experts suggest this amount could climb to a staggering 52,000 tonnes of solid waste per year by 2021-2022.
Single-use plastics account for a significant amount of the health industry’s waste, and have a devastating environmental impact. The Victorian Government estimates that plastics comprise almost a third of the solid waste generated by hospitals. This plastic comes from items such as IV bags, oxygen tubing, kidney dishes, syringes, and the plastic in which single-use instruments are packaged. Every procedure generates waste: a small surgical procedure might create one (plastic) bag of waste, while complex operations create many more.
Hospitals generate a large amount of waste, however they are also one avenue where health professionals are making significant impacts in waste management and reduction. Leanne Flynn, a surgical nurse at Gosford Private Hospital, is working with dedicated hospital staff to promote change. After realising the scale of waste generated by hospitals in 2018, Leanne decided to take action and build awareness around waste disposal.
Leanne estimates that as much as 80% of the waste from a surgical procedure is created before the patient arrives in the operating theatre. A lack of understanding about the nature of medical waste means that some companies are reluctant to accept it for recycling, but Leanne is looking for solutions. ‘I don’t think the ‘no’ has to be a definite ‘no’ – it’s a ‘not right now’ until we get a solution … I haven’t run out of solutions yet, so I’m going to keep trying.’ Staff at Gosford Private are now working together to reduce waste through implementing recycling strategies and eliminating single-use plastic items wherever possible. Leanne notes that support from fellow staff, including the Hospital’s Executive, has been key. ‘It’s great to have a team of people who are on the same page.’
CEO of Gosford Private, Matt Kelly recognises the importance of addressing sustainability in the industry. “Sustainability is not part of our core business, however I see it as our community responsibility to do it. We are making waves in our own industry as others want to learn more from what we are able to achieve. It is through staff like Leanne that we are able to investigate, trial and implement change.”
The hospital promotes a circular economy by recycling its single use plastics as part of a wider recycling program. Gosford Private have also switched from plastic kidney dishes to sugar cane alternatives, which not only break down in landfill, but are cheaper than their plastic counterparts. These are just some of the initiatives now being implemented throughout the hospital.
While the amount of waste can seem daunting, Leanne believes that sharing knowledge is key in generating change. ‘By having conversations, I think you can make a change. It’s important to have the conversations and be quite transparent about what you’re trying to do.’ Gosford Private serves as one example of how the healthcare industry can extend the valuable work they do by reducing waste, and Gosford Private is not alone in doing so. ‘There are so many people looking for answers everywhere.’