U.S. Health Care Industry Makes a Dent in Massive Medical Waste


Medical waste is sorted outside Bangalore, India. Image via: NYT

If you've ever sat in the dentist's chair wondering where all those shiny, silver teeth-cleaning tools might end up one day, or perhaps contemplated the future of the bio-hazardous waste bin in your doctor's office--you, like me, probably assumed the "invisible" landfill as its next destination.

What is barely ever spoken of, nor seen, is just how many mountains of medical waste exists and what's being done to prevent it. This recent New York Times piece dishes on the industry's dubious amounts of disposable and recyclable devices, supplies, and equipment--from syringes to surgical instruments. The question of the hour: reprocessing disposable medical instruments for re-use is more sustainable--but is it safe?As the NYT writes,

Until fairly recently, most medical devices -- made from durable metal, glass or rubber -- could be disinfected for countless reuses. In the 1980s, however, the health care industry began shifting to single-use versions, often made from inexpensive plastics, partly because the emerging H.I.V. epidemic raised fears about the risks of recycling equipment. Although it soon became clear that sterilization techniques readily killed the virus, the trend toward disposables kept growing. At Hopkins, Dr. Makary noticed more and more of his permanently reusable surgical tools being replaced by throwaways. It was, he said, a way "for the industry to make more money."

Is Recycling Single-Use Medical Instruments Safe?

Since then, there have remained lingering concerns over the safety of recycling single-use devices, and the possibility of malfunction. Not until the past couple of years, John Hopkins School of Medicine researchers have begun investigating the verity of these fears.

Were patients harmed when treated with reprocessed, single-use medical instruments? According to the Hopkins studies, no. Researchers concluded that reprocessing "has a reliable safety record of excellence identical to that of new equipment."

Though recycling is helping divert tons of medical garbage from landfills, recycled instruments and supplies still need to be thrown away at some point, as Dr. Rafael Andrade from the University of Minnesota Medical Center notes.

Hospitals Go Green, Save Green

Keeping this in mind, some hospitals are finding other ways to be green and are cutting back on their use of disposables altogether by streamlining the amount of supplies found in the operating rooms. Also heartening, unused items are more and more being donated to organizations sending health care supplies to countries in need like Somalia and Haiti thanks to the help of inspired individuals like Nurse Scott Barlow at the clinic in Yosemite National Park and organizations like InterVol, a non-profit started in 1989.

More on Medical Waste:
Health Care Without Harm: a Hippocratic Waste Oath
Q&A;: Medical Clinics - Can they be Eco-Friendly?
The Plastiki's Quest, and Questioning Plastic

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