The Plastic Plague

by Robbie Kessler

Around the United States lies a plague, one that is infecting hospitals at an increasing rate. It grows in all the wrong places and goes unnoticed throughout the daily bustle. This plague is plastic.

Plastics make up “between 15 to 25% of all hospital waste in the U.S., which amounts to a maximum annual loading of 850 million pounds of plastic waste per year,” according to Emily J. North, a resident physician at New York University, and Rolf Halden, the director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State University. Some of the most common plastics include IV tubes, syringes, and plastic packaging for single use instruments.

A registered nurse that works for Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI), who wished to be referred to as RN, explained what her daily plastic usage was like within her hospital.

“Almost everything that we use is packaged in some kind of plastic material and all of these items are one-use items” RN said. “For me in the O.R. (operating room) we’re opening up at least 50 different items for each surgery that we do, and it will fill up a 32 gallon trash bag and that’s for each patient.”

On average each day the hospital does around 16-20 surgeries meaning that 800 to 1,000 single-use items are taken out of their plastic packaging and eventually disposed of, filling a trash bag with the equivalent of 512 to 640 gallons worth of plastic waste.


The O.R. is one of the biggest producers of plastic waste within a hospital. It generates anywhere between “20-30% of total hospital waste,” according to Roadrunner Recycling. While the O.R. produces a large portion of a hospital’s total waste, plastic waste can be found in large amounts elsewhere throughout the hospital.

Additionally, one of the most common pieces of plastic waste in a hospital is the eight-foot-long IV tubes. According to Paige Pighetti, a nursing student at Santa Barbara City College, “The IV has to be replaced every 72 hours to keep the possibility of infection from happening.” Because of this and the fact that IV tubes are for single use only, large amounts of plastics are accumulated.

But the question remains, why is there so much waste? The answer is safety, and this is achieved primarily through the Aseptic Technique.

According to South Australia Health the Aseptic technique “aims to prevent pathogenic organisms, in sufficient quantity to cause infection, from being introduced to susceptible body sites by the hands of staff, surfaces or equipment.”

This means that most medical instruments must be disposed of after their use. Pighetti summed up

the technique by saying, “Anytime something enters a patient's room, you can’t take it out.”

With all of this waste, what are hospitals doing to better their recycling practice? Both RN and Pighetti provided a concerning look into the current recycling situation at the hospitals where they work. RN said, “From what I understand, CHI doesn’t do any kind of recycling program for any of its plastic items. They do some recycling for medical instruments.”

Pighetti had a similar comment about the recycling at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital. “This is definitely a very wasteful profession,” Pighetti said. “I don’t think they recycle very much because their minds are on other things, out of all the things going on in the hospital that’s definitely not a priority.”

However, this isn’t the case at all hospitals. Many hospitals have partnered with outside organizations to help them with their waste and recycling. One of these organizations is Practice Greenhealth. Practice Greenhealth, along with Health Care Without Harm and the Center for Health Design, established the Healthier Hospitals Initiative in May of 2010.

Since its formation, 702 different hospitals have joined Healthier Hospital’s ‘Less Waste Challenge’. The overview for the challenge states, “The Healthier Hospital’s Less Waste Challenge helps hospitals reduce, reuse, recycle and segregate waste more effectively and become better environmental stewards.”

The Less Waste Challenge has three levels, determined by whether a hospital takes on one, two or three goals. The three goals are: regulated medical waste reduction, recycling, and construction and demolition diversion. Regulated medical waste reduction and recycling are the two most important goals when looking to reduce plastic waste within a hospital.

Regulated medical waste reduction requires the hospital to “report a waste baseline for: solid waste, regulated medical waste, recycling and hazardous waste.” After this the goal is to reduce the regulated medical waste by at least 10% of the total waste or less than eight tons per operating room per year. Recycling also requires the hospital to report a baseline for the same waste, and have the goal of achieving “a 15% recycling rate compared to total waste.”

Practice Greenhealth and their Healthier Hospitals Initiative are helping to encourage hospitals to reduce their waste. Programs like this can help hospitals create a healthier future not only for themselves, but for the environment as well.

The future of reducing plastic waste in hospitals is looking positive, however it still has a long way to go. While organizations like Practice Greenhealth are helping to make hospitals smarter about waste there is still a large number of hospitals that continue to operate without these programs.

“There are all sorts of new innovations that are happening.” says RN. “Recycled plastics or alternatives to plastics, if we could utilize these instead of things that don’t biodegrade, that would be good.”

Hospitals need to understand their impact on the environment and adjust accordingly. This way they will be able to save lives while simultaneously saving the environment.