Single-use surgical items contribute two-thirds of the carbon footprint of products used in common operations

Wednesday, 26 April, 2023

We are pleased to share that our Sustainable Surgery Fellow 2018-21, Dr Chantelle Rizan, has had her latest research paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, evaluating the carbon footprint of the products used for the five most common operations in the NHS in England. 

The study, which was conducted by researchers from the University of Warwick and the Brighton and Sussex Medical School, is the first to comprehensively assess the carbon footprint of goods used in routine operations. The investigation was done using firsthand observations of operating rooms at three different University Hospitals Sussex NHS Foundation Trust locations.

The team review of the carbon footprint of materials used in the five most frequent surgical procedures performed in the NHS in England (knee replacement, gall bladder removal, carpal tunnel decompression surgery, hernia repair, and tonsillectomy) shows that single-use products like gowns, patient drapes, and instrument table drapes account for 68% of the carbon emissions. Additionally, the analysis reveals that single-use product production and trash disposal, as well as processes for decontaminating reusable items were substantial carbon contributors.

“Mitigating the carbon footprint of products used in resource-intensive areas such as surgical operating rooms will be important in achieving net zero carbon healthcare. Strategies should include eliminating or finding low carbon alternatives for products with the biggest contribution.” - Dr Chantelle Rizan, Lead researcher, Clinical Lecturer in Sustainable Healthcare at Brighton and Sussex Medical School

Key findings:  

  • Two-thirds of the carbon footprint is related to single-use products
  • 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

“Eliminating single-use items or switching to reusables where feasible, alongside optimising associated decontamination processes and waste segregation and recycling, could reduce product carbon footprint by one third. This model was based on reusable alternatives already on the market, and this figure may be surpassed where industry rises to the challenge of sustainable surgical product innovation.” - Dr Chantelle Rizan, Lead researcher, Clinical Lecturer in Sustainable Healthcare at Brighton and Sussex Medical School

Key messages:  

  • Focus efforts towards carbon hotspot items
  • Efforts should include phasing out single-use items, adopting reusable alternatives
  • For reusable instruments, there needs to be oprtimised processses fo decontamiantion

The supplementary tables in the article also contain a breakdown of the carbon footprint of hundreds of surgical products.

You can read the full research ‘The carbon footprint of products used in five common surgical operations: identifying contributing products and processes’  here.