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Can We Save Lives and the Earth?

At the start of my high school career, one of my first extracurricular activities was volunteering at Sunrise Hospital in the Emergency Room. As a youth volunteer, I was restricted to the tasks available, but I did my best in any way from replacing and folding the linen of the hospital beds to stocking up and organizing all medical equipment within each room. Each tool and supply was so meticulously wrapped, and I noticed that almost everything inside a hospital room is made from this one material: PLASTIC. From personal protection equipment and blue wraps to IV bags and containers, plastic was the material that kept these tools safe, efficient, and sterile in these environments. 

However, what is the complication with plastic? Plastic pollution, of course. Plastic pollution is a pressing threat to human and environmental health. As derived from fossil fuels and a main contributor to the problem of climate change, plastics are also not biodegradable, meaning that plastics break up into very small pieces, called microplastics. These individual microplastics expose people to toxic pollutants and transmit disease as they enter our food systems and waterways. Moveover, plastic can disrupt the ocean environment and strangle our animals with life and death consequences. 

Thankfully, the government has tried to combat the plastic pollution concern with fees and bans, but this effort is definitely not enough, and healthcare cannot be excused from these adjustments when it is one of the largest waste-producing sectors. Daily, hospital patients generate 33.8 pounds of waste everyday, translating to 6 million tons annually. In fact, 20%-25% of that waste produced in the US healthcare field is plastic, and 91% of that plastic is not recycled, quoted by Navami Jain, author of “How Should US Health Care Lead Global Change in Plastic Waste Disposal (published by American Medical Association Journal of Ethics) . Yet, you may ask why plastic is still the most common material used in the healthcare system even though the statistics clearly show its negative impact…

There are several reasons:

  • Low cost
  • Easy to process
  • Easy to sterilize

According to the American Chemistry Council, “single-use plastics are the cleanest, most efficient way,” to facilitate health and hygiene in hospitals. Since plastic is cheap, healthcare facilities can save more money for other equipment and materials. If medical environments were to get rid of plastics, healthcare costs would be higher, and this would be a issue as healthcare costs are already high, and many patients cannot afford to pay the healthcare bills. Additionally, since plastic is easy to process, there is a vast amount of tools produced for the numerous facilities in the United States, and medical plastic facilities generate more profit due to its single use and necessary need. Beyond these two reasons, medical staff seek to achieve optimal health as their main priority; thus, medical equipment must be sterile in all cases. 

For example, the concern for the spread of HIV is a sole reason for single-use plastics. Without plastic to safely separate a fluid from another fluid, HIV could easily be spread from person to person. To prevent diseases and illnesses from multiplying, healthcare facilities highly suggest utilizing single-use plastics. Blood bags, moreover, enhance the importance of single-use plastics. A study showed that “the rate of haemolysis is far more rapid when the blood is stored in glass than in plastic containers,” and “haemolysis, by the way, is the rupture of destruction of red blood cells.” As you can see, storing blood in glass containers is seen as a much riskier storage space than as if it were in plastic containers. 

The biohazard component will always be the main concern regarding the debate between medical plastic and the environment, but there are indeed ways that healthcare facilities can gradually combat this problem by enabling a circular economy.

According to “Plastics and Health,” published by advocacy group Healthcare without Harm, “a circular economy is just and transparent, and based on products which are necessary, climate-smart, non-toxic and non-polluting, designed for reuse and long life, easily recycles, and with safe final disposal options.” In terms of infrastructure and operations, health care systems can implement stronger methods to predict and manage supply needs in order to prevent reordering of single-use plastics. For policy solutions, national healthcare organizations can develop guidelines for sustainable practices, including enforcing commitments to both sustainability and global health equity as a primary operational goal. 

Finally, in order to further create recommendations for the medical field’s play in the plastic crisis, health care policy makers can include funding for medical plastic design that is benign and recyclable and invest in local infrastructures to reprocess medical products and increase the production of value-added products while avoiding system-wide shortages. Patients should also trust the voices of health professionals with the use of reused materials. With collaboration, creativity, and problem solving, the healthcare sector can achieve a balance between human healthcare and environmental protection. Slowly but surely, we’ll be able to save lives and the Earth, right? With a better Earth, we’ll be able to better save lives.


#EarthDay #Medical #Debate

To find more information: check out the PDF created by Health Care Without Harm November 2022:


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