World Environment Day 2023: Solutions for healthcare plastic pollution

On this 2023 World Environment Day, it is essential to recognise the potential for positive change and collective action within the healthcare system.

What is World Environment Day 2023?

World Environment Day, observed every year on June 5, is an international effort to increase public awareness of environmental problems and to highlight the importance of sustainable practises for preserving the world for future generations.

This year, the theme is « Solutions to Plastic Pollution »

World Environment Day 2023 is a reminder that people’s actions on plastic pollution matters. The steps governments and businesses are taking to tackle plastic pollution are the consequence of this action.It is time to accelerate this action and transition to a circular economy. It is time to #BeatPlasticPollution.
- World Environment Day


The increasing impact of plastic pollution on the environment and our health

Plastics, particularly microplastics, are everywhere. Though there are numerous useful applications for it, we have developed a dependence on single-use plastic products, negatively effecting our environment, economy, and health. This plastic waste ends up in landfills, rivers, oceans and other water bodies where it causes environmental damage. Additionally, microplastics and chemicals leaching from plastic into our food and water supply have become an increasingly concerning health risk. These small particles of plastic are found in a variety of products, from food packaging to clothing, and can enter our bodies through ingestion or inhalation. The potential health risks associated with these microplastics and chemicals range from digestive issues to endocrine disruption and even cancer. Furthermore, the presence of these substances in our environment can have a negative impact on ecosystems health as well. It is therefore imperative that we take steps to reduce our exposure to these potentially harmful materials.

According to the UN environment programme:

  • One million plastic bottles are bought globally every minute
  • Five trillion plastic bags are used annually
  • Half of all plastic produced is intended for single-use applications, meaning it will only be used once before being discarded

It is time to change how we produce, consume and dispose of the plastic we use.

The challenges of plastic pollution in healthcare settings

Historically, plastic has been the material of choice for medical equipment because of its adaptability, cost-effectiveness, and durability. But the use of single-use plastics in hospitals and other healthcare facilities has grown significantly in the past few decades, leading to an increase in plastic waste.This problem was made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic and the surge in the manufacturing, use, and demand for masks, gloves, and auto tests.

Source: Sustainable waste management - A guide for the healthcare sector, Healthcare Without Harm

According to a recent assessment by Healthcare Without Harm, the NHS was producing 11,300 tonnes of garbage each day before the pandemic. Around 2,500 tonnes of plastic waste are produced daily, or 22.7%, of this total.

How are plastics recycled in healthcare?

In Europe, 36% of healthcare waste is reportedly made of plastic. Conventionally, the used plastics are either disposed in landfills or inadequately incinerated. In fact, 42% of the plastic waste generated by the healthcare sector is burned, which has a negative impact on the climate and the environment. Why then does so much plastic bypass the usual plastic recycling streams?

Source: Sustainable waste management - A guide for the healthcare sector, Healthcare Without Harm

Some challenges and barriers, particularly in the healthcare industry, mean plastic recycling isn’t optimised. Read our blog post on Waste and Recycling in the UK Healthcare Sector to learn more about it.

How to take action

Innovative solutions to combat plastic pollution in healthcare exist today. Healthcare professionals are finding ways to limit the purchase of plastic and plastic-packaged items, encouraging plastic recycling and liaising with manufacturers about their plastic use and sustainability. All of which help to reduce the plastic ‘burden’ while reducing costs to their practice. It is also worth making the case that plastics belong in the category of "hazardous" medical waste, which implies that medical personnel ought to look for alternatives as part of their goal to promote health. The focus there is on replacing rather than recycling plastics.

As healthcare professionals, you can help #BeatPlasticPollution by:

  • Looking into reusable equipment: our Sustainable Surgery Fellow 2018-21, Dr Chantelle Rizan's latest research paper evaluates the carbon footprint of the products used for the five most common operations in the NHS in England. Her key findings demonstarte that two-thirds of the carbon footprint in surgery settings is related to single-use products. And, only a small number of products (about 23%) were accountable for more than 80% of the product carbon footprint throughout the five operations. Predominantly large, single-use mainly plastic items including single-use surgical gowns, drapes, tubing, electrosurgical and multi-component surgical instruments. Learn more about reusable equipment by reading about our green surgery challenge team projects
  • Pushing for responsible procurement: incorporating sustainability into the procurement process, where environmental impacts are considered up front, will help healthcare systems to reduce unnecessary single-use plastic. CSH has partnered with NHS Wales Shared Services Partnership, Cardiff and Vale UHB, the Green Health Wales Network and the Dragon's Heart Institute to offer a 12-month scholarship programme focused on sustainable healthcare procurement. And the Royal College of Physicians Less Waste, More Health report demonstrates how physicians can improve societal health and wellbeing by making little adjustments to the acquisition and disposal of medical goods.
  • Recycling: Given the limited acceptance of plastic waste from healthcare facilities by many recyclers, Exploring reusable equipment where possible and rethinking practices becomes essential. Simultaneously, optimising recycling processes and ensuring accessibility for both staff and patients are crucial e.g. waste segregation, streamlined collection systems, clear recycling signage, educational materials, and staff training programs can promote active participation. Our Sustainable Dentistry How-to Guide: Equipment and Supplies has a section on how to reduce plastic purchasing and waste here. The Hywel Dda University Health Board Green Team Competition and the Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust Green Team Competition showcase great examples of how clinical teams can get involved in responding to the waste and plastic pollution concerns.
  • Advocating and collaborating: we need dedicated leadership, incentives and direction to help reduce waste. You can encourage your staff to aimed to find alternative options to improve the patients’ experience and protect the environment. Our Green Team Competition is an award-winning leadership and engagement programme to transform healthcare by engaging healthcare staff to plan, run and measure the impact of Sustainable Quality Improvement (SusQI) initatives. Our training courses offer a mix of core concepts and case studies, followed by live online workshops with expert advice on applying theory to practice in your setting. Designed for health professionals, educators, sustainability or estates managers, the courses prepare you to implement sustainability projects in your workplace, conduct research and contribute to developing and delivering your organisation’s Green Plan.