Medical Observer: We need to do more to reduce medical waste

We need to do more to reduce waste in medicine, writes GP Dr Richard Yin.

The ABC’s recent programme War on Waste highlights how little we are doing to reduce waste in Australia and the degree to which it has become institutionalised in our time-poor, convenience-orientated way of living. Branding and the accompanying packaging drives advertising and sales.

Medicine is not immune from these influences.

From packaging of single-use products to packaging of drugs, through procurement, we are active participants in waste creation.

In Australia, more than 520,000 tons of solid waste is produced each year. Hospitals are among the most energy-intensive facilities with 75 to 90 percent of healthcare waste likely to be recyclable. For the health sector to move to a more sustainable footing, as has occurred in the UK, we should be doing more to reduce or recycle non-infectious waste.

Waste disposal is costly and land-fill levees are rising. In Perth for example, costs have risen in 2015 from $8/tonne to $60/tonne. With infectious waste costing about $1/kg to dispose, 10 times more than non-infectious waste, there is a strong financial case to establish reliable waste separation protocols and increase recycling rates within Australian hospitals. Furthermore, within procurement, we should be adopting a whole-of-life approach, especially of single use products, that the cost of disposal be incorporated in decision-making. And as major consumers, we need to be more demanding of companies that they do their part in reducing packaging and waste.

More broadly, we need to consider how healthcare moves to become more sustainable. Its current trajectory through either financial or environmental metrics is surely unsustainable. A sustainable health and care system needs to be able to go on forever within the limits of financial, social and environmental resources. It needs to deliver high quality care and improved public health without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage.

We could start with “greening” the health sector with attention to energy, travel, waste, procurement, water, infrastructure adaptation and buildings. More importantly we need to broaden our view to include a system-wide approach when deciding what we invest in within health services. There is strong evidence for the cost-effectiveness of numerous public health interventions especially when considering the long-term return on investments. Finally, we need to look beyond health care to social and economic policies that create health inequalities within our society.

 

Dr Richard Yin is a Perth based GP and father, and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

First published in Medical Observer on 3 August 2017

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