Waste Management

The Issue

Hospitals generate millions of tons of waste each year. Waste is complex, expensive to manage, and a common challenge for health care organizations.

Our partner organization, Practice Greenhealth, draws from best practices from hospitals across the country and the world to provide a wealth of tools and resources for health care to minimize the volume of waste generated, reduce the toxicity of waste by making smarter purchasing decisions upstream, and properly segregate and recycle waste.

Waste management strategies

Five principles for sustainable health care waste management

Waste management strategies 

Smarter purchasing, safer product design

One important strategy for waste management is product design and supplier interaction. Our focus on sustainable procurement and safer chemicals can shift the market by putting pressure on suppliers to embed sustainability and justice into what we buy by making safer, more sustainable health care products. 

Practice Greenhealth’s groundbreaking sustainable procurement guide features stories from 25 health care organizations around the globe, offering a roadmap for developing a sustainable purchasing strategy that prioritizes community and environmental health and safety while reducing costs.

Our partner hospitals facilitate the purchasing of products that meet our standardized environmental criteria and achieve safer materials benchmarks. The Greenhealth Approved seal makes it easier for hospitals to identify and select products that meet their goals.

Transition from disposables to reusables

Our priority reusable products used in health care guidance helps hospitals transition from disposables to reusables for products across 10 reusable supply categories.

Our three COVID-19 waste reduction strategy guides offer guidance for setting up successful immunization programs using innovative practices to reduce waste and provide a framework for safely processing hazardous materials. 

Minimizing waste and supply costs in the operating room

Operating rooms (ORs) are responsible for 40-60% of an organization’s total supply costs, producing more than 30% of a facility’s waste and two-thirds of its regulated medical waste. Partner hospitals and health systems utilize Practice Greenhealth’s greening the OR resources to design and implement climate-smart, sustainable strategies to reduce OR supply costs and waste.  

Minimizing food waste

An estimated 10-15% of the waste an average hospital creates is food waste. Reducing food losses by just 15% would provide enough food for more than 25 million people living in the United States every year. By procuring food in ways that reduce the amount that goes uneaten, recycling food waste through composting or anaerobic digestion, and donating uneaten food to community nonprofits, health care organizations can reduce their food waste, waste management costs, and climate impact.

Five principles for sustainable health care waste management 

Improper health care waste management may expose health workers and surrounding  communities to direct threats from waste and air pollution. These impacts represent a loss of human rights, including the right to a safe working environment, the right to a clean environment, and the rights to life and health.

Safe, sustainable health care waste management is a critical concern for those charged with protecting public health. These principles are intended to guide sustainable health care waste management advocacy and initiatives. 

1. Zero waste as a goal to protect health

All waste strategies should follow the waste hierarchy to conserve resources and minimize waste: rethinking the need for products, reducing waste, reusing, repairing and repurposing products, composting, or recycling should be considered before disposal.

2. No to incineration

Incineration – including waste to energy, pyrolysis, plastics feedstock recycling (also known as chemical recycling), and related technologies – is harmful to health and should be phased out. Medical waste incineration is a leading source of dioxin, mercury, lead, and other harmful pollutants that threaten human health and the environment. Health Care Without Harm collaborates with health care systems, NGOs, governments, and international agencies to research and promote environmentally sound and healthy alternatives to medical waste incineration.

3. Toxic-free future

Substances that are carcinogenic, mutagenic, toxic, or hazardous should be excluded from products and services, and health care should enact sustainable procurement to facilitate this process. Materials containing toxic chemicals should not be recycled to prevent legacy toxics from contaminating new products.

4. Worker protection

Workers managing waste must be recognized as essential workers and provided the education, occupational health protection, pay, and status they deserve as a vital part of environmental health and infection prevention and control.

5. The polluter pays

The polluter pays principle should be enforced through the mechanism of extended producer responsibility. Industries – such as the pharmaceutical industry or those manufacturing single-use plastic products – must share responsibility and costs for the collection, reuse, recycling, safe treatment, and disposal of their products.

Visit Practice Greenhealth for more on waste management