Zero Waste

Three Crucial Elements Hospitals Need to Consider When Addressing Waste Generation by Dr. Cassandra Thiel

November 22, 2021

By: Cassandra Thiel, PhD (Assistant Professor at NYU Langone Health and Zabble, Inc. Advisory Board Member)

A sustainability mindset is taking hold in the healthcare industry, as the National Academy of Medicine recently announced its Grand Challenge on Climate Change and Human Health and many health systems and healthcare providers are setting ambitious emissions-reductions targets. Medical waste is one specific area hospitals are trying to tackle, and for good reason! Healthcare activities in the US generate 5 million tons of waste annually; they can be hazardous (though 85% of healthcare waste is non-hazardous) and costly to treat (totaling up to $7 billion annually in excess costs). 

What can hospitals do to tackle their waste generation?

  1. Address contamination

Contamination is when certain wastes are erroneously disposed of in an incorrect waste stream. For example, if non-recyclable products such as gloves are thrown into a recycling bin, they can cause extra work for the waste hauler, potentially clogging machines and forcing laborers to sort through the waste manually. Healthcare facilities must also be concerned about contamination of waste streams from hazardous or infectious wastes. Recent detailed waste audits confirm that not all hazardous or infectious wastes end up where they ought to, with 85% of the waste disposed in red bags not meeting the criteria for Regulated Medical Waste. This can result in fines for the institution, not to mention health and safety risks to people handling the waste downstream from the hospital. The same study found 20% of waste thrown into the recycling bins in the emergency department was not actually recyclable.

Addressing contamination is often an issue of clearly labeling waste bins, ensuring bins are accessible where waste is being generated, and repeated, consistent training for clinicians and staff. Streamlining waste  collection times and effectively managing inventory of bins and liners can also help. Detailed waste audits in specific departments can help identify the types of contamination and the frequency at which this occurs. With this information, labels and training materials can be tailored to the department. Regular auditing could provide data to develop performance incentives and friendly competition within and between departments.

  1. Assess landfill diversion or recovery

Waste diversion is another element to improving waste management in hospitals. Diversion campaigns seek to increase the proportion of total wastes sent to regular municipal solid waste (MSW or white bag waste) or recycling. Of course, this needs to be done without causing contamination, but very little medical waste has bodily fluids or other infectious agents on it. This diversion strategy requires an appropriate number of MSW and recycling bins, in appropriate locations. If a hospital has a 50% recycling diversion goal, 50% of their waste bins should be for recycling. And, of course, they should be purchasing recyclable products.

  1. Find opportunities for waste reduction

Lastly, hospitals can be much more proactive in tackling waste, by looking upstream from the dumpsters and loading docks. Many clinical care spaces generate waste by throwing out items that were unused or unopened, such as this neurosurgical department that estimated nearly $3 million in annual savings by removing unused items from surgery. Waste audits could again identify which items are consistently unused or unopened, and interviews or observations in these clinical spaces could identify which processes lead to this unnecessary waste. Offending items could be removed from custom packs or surgical kits or stored in spaces that are more easily accessible to the clinical care team without risk of contamination. This strategy has the potential to save a lot of money, as these supplies may not need to be purchased as frequently.

Healthcare waste is a growing issue, and one that needs to be addressed. Every hospital should consider their waste management practices and look for ways to minimize contamination, increase diversion, and reduce needless waste. It’s good for the bottom line, patients, and the planet.

To learn more about how Zabble can help optimize container bin inventory, collection times and hauling costs to meet your hospital's waste goals, please contact the Zabble team.