Plastic waste and its littering is a cause of concern all over the world. Single use plastics have been banned as they are the maximum of the literal plastics
Thus the amount of waste produced as a result of single-use plastics in healthcare is having an alarming impact on the environment. In the UK alone, the NHS disposes of approximately 133,000 tonnes of plastic every year with a mere 5% of this being recovered. From gloves to surgical devices, plastic has been revolutionary for the healthcare industry, offering a low-cost and adaptable option for the production of a myriad of products. While in many areas of care single-use plastic is necessary for infection prevention and control, there are opportunities to reduce its use and to introduce more reusable alternatives. More and more strategies to support this are being launched.
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In the UK a new project entitled ‘Towards plastic-free healthcare in Europe’ has been launched with Health Care Without Harm Europe’s Circular Healthcare Project.
It is known that plastic is a very useful material for the healthcare industry, it is cheap to produce and can be molded to make a range of healthcare products. The problem is that there is just too much of it, and it is not always necessary, nor reused where it could be.
Differences in culture, from one country to another, and awareness of the actual risk associated with procedures can also impact plastic use. Many hospitals are doing good work in reducing plastic use and we know that solutions are available, which is encouraging.
There are many opportunities to reduce single-use gloves and there is a project called ‘Gloves Are Off!’ in UK aimed to reduce the unnecessary use of non-sterile gloves. They managed to reduce glove orders from 11.1 million to 6.8 million, saving more than £100,000. It turned out that staff were overusing gloves thinking that they were protecting the patient when actually, gloves posed a greater risk of cross-contamination because instead of hand washing, staff were simply using gloves. The team also continued the awareness-raising campaign during COVID showing again that gloves are not necessary for every healthcare situation. One hospital participating in the ‘Towards plastic-free healthcare in Europe’ project has shown that after doing some procurement data analysis, that gloves represented almost 18% of their total plastic use.
It is said that there can be risks with Microplastics and the harmful chemicals they contain, and judging by how much the scientists are warning us about these risks, itis important to think about prevention and not just wait but someonehasto do research to prove the extent of the problem.
On top of the use of plastic, there is also the production and disposal of plastic. A lot of plastic is incinerated, even in waste to energy it is still incinerated, emitting toxic chemicals. The communities living next to incineration plants are typically already underprivileged, this inequality is widening, as they are the most affected by these production and disposal processes.
It is hard to know the true recycling rates for plastic in healthcare and in general, there is so little transparency in the process and the numbers vary across Europe and that the rates are very low in healthcare compared to general-use plastics, so there is more focus more on prevention and reduce plastics to begin with.
There is some encouragement and a push for hospitals to recycle their single-use plastic and their waste in general, but they encounter many challenges. For example, recycling firms do not always accept plastic from healthcare which is a not correct because 85% of the plastic in healthcare is non-hazardous, it is just like the general waste one would recycle at home. It is hard to know how different countries are managing this, and this is an issue
In the Nordic countries, there is a lot of effort to reduce single-use plastic Sometimes this effort is because of regulation but sometimes institutions join forces at the local level to make progressive change.
Thus a reduction in unnecessary or less use of plastics, as well as in packaging, is needed and a holistic approach is necessary while considering use of plastics in healthcare for human beings.