How the health care system can help reduce climate change

April 23, 2024

The U.S. health care system is one of the nation’s largest contributors of waste, but there are ways to mitigate its footprint and improve global health

Key Takeaways:

From plastic speculums to gloves and gowns, hospitals use thousands of disposable items each day. Up to a quarter of the estimated 14,000 tons of waste generated each day by U.S. health care facilities are plastic—and 91% of those plastics are not recycled, reported National Geographic. Hospitals are also the third-most energy-intensive commercial buildings, contributing 8.5% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

In short, the same industry that is saving lives inside the hospital also has a significant carbon footprint that can harm lives outside of it.

“I was so shocked [to learn] about how labs and [the] health care industry that I’ve been in the last 25 years contributes to climate change,” said Deanna Benner, women’s health nurse practitioner at Christiana Care in Delaware, said during a recent panel discussion on the health care sector’s carbon footprint at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg Center. “And how we can also be the solution.”

The Earth Day event, organized by the Hopkins Business of Health Initiative, included a conversation with Xavier Becerra, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Benefits of multi-use plastics

One solution is switching from plastic to reusable medical supplies. However, panelists noted the common misconception that reusable items are less sanitary and more expensive, even though studies have shown the opposite.

“Just because something needs to be sterilized does not mean it needs to be disposable,” said Jodi Sherman, associate professor of anesthesiology and of epidemiology at the Yale School of Medicine and a panelist at the event. “In fact, we can transmit infections with a single use disposable device just as readily as we can a disposable one. I really need to dispel this notion that single use disposal is better for patient safety.”

Single-use items are also not as cost-effective. One California hospital began using reusable gowns and saved more than $3.5 million over four years. Plus, many hospitals don’t account for the cost of waste management. Hospitals that implemented sustainable practices, such as reducing waste, saved an estimated $68 million in 2018, according to the 2019 Environmental Excellence Awards.

“This is not just a moral and health care issue,” Becerra said. “This makes financial sense. Take a look at the financials with any facility and you’ll see that one of their expenses that continues to grow is disposal of waste.”

Global effort needed

Aside from switching to reusable items, Sherman also called for better testing and policies related to the expiration date of medical supplies. Often, supplies have expiration dates earlier than when they cannot be used safely anymore. Benner highlighted medical supply donation programs as a solution to sustainably disposing of “expired”—but still usable—supplies.

Small steps, like switching to reusable items, is one way to ensure our health care system does not further contribute to climate change. But Becerra said it will take a global effort, one that the United States has a responsibility to lead on.

“I want to give credit to the health care sector,” Becerra said. “They recognize that you can’t pitch good health and then be creating a whole bunch of waste at the same time.”