How do you fix healthcare’s medical waste problem?

Besides carbon dioxide, healthcare relies on several more potent greenhouse gases; operating theatres rely on the anaesthetic gases desflurane, sevoflurane and nitrous oxide, which are greenhouse gases. Only 5{554322552816a46baa129cc1ab31b2aae22be5e23f407658ace83a643d80b0e9} of these gases actually enter a patient’s system during surgery – the rest is vented out as medical waste. These halogenated gases have the global warming potential up to 2,000 times greater than carbon dioxide. Researchers have suggested reducing emissions by using gas-capture technology that uses canisters to collect unused anaesthetics.

“Hospital managements may have a lot of things that they have to put in place to make sustainability ‘a thing’, but in reality every healthcare professional should be thinking about it in the way you use products,” says Roschnik. “How you do clinical practice in a sustainable way is going to require every healthcare professional to think about it.”

As Teves’ efforts in Singapore to save reusable medical devices from the incinerator show, sometimes providing the best care for patients and sustainability naturally align. And where they don’t, it’s a question of how to redesign the healthcare system so there isn’t a choice between saving lives and the environment.

“What health means now is to address those factors that are making people sick in the first place, and not just treating sick people,” says Health Care Without Harm’s Cohen. “[We need to get] healthcare to address their climate footprint, to be the anchors of resilience for the communities that they serve, and to become advocates for environmental health and justice.”

Given the health risks of air pollution, climate change and plastic waste, cleaning up healthcare could in fact turn out to be an opportunity to save many more lives.

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