Why is single-use plastic a problem in hospitals

Why is single-use plastic a problem in hospitals?

25% of the waste generated by hospitals is plastic, according to Practice Greenhealth. Yet, unlike other industries and individuals who are able to make a commitment to sustainability by becoming zero-waste, hospitals face a conundrum. Single-use plastic is detrimental to the environment, but it’s also inexpensive, durable and hygienic which is what makes it so attractive to patient care.

There are non-profit organisations who are dedicated to making healthcare more sustainable and that includes choosing when to use plastic as the safest option for patients, and when to use an eco-friendly alternative.

Why is plastic so popular in hospitals?

Single-use plastic is not a new phenomenon. Single-use plastics were viewed as an attractive option as they allow for maintenance of a sterile environment, with easy disposal of any infected plastic material. Yet, the sheer quantity of single-use plastics in hospitals is becoming alarming.  

How do hospitals use plastic?

Plastic-wrapped medical devices are used in healthcare because they provide a freshly sterilised instrument that ensures a high standard of hygiene for patients. However, there are many other alternatives that are better for the environment whilst providing optimal patient care. Take the hospital thermometer for example. It is typically used to take temperatures in a variety of ways using contact, types of contact-thermometer include tympanic, rectal and axillary. The risk of cross-contamination is high from one patient to the next, which is why hospitals and healthcare facilities rely on single-use plastic thermometer probe covers which are disposable and hygienic. Yet, plastic could be eliminated entirely from temperature-taking by switching instead to a medical grade non-contact thermometer.

Healthcare facilities might also examine the overuse of products such as blue plastic wrap. This is made from a sheet of polypropylene that covers medical tools to keep them sterile. The sheet is removed and discarded before surgeries, creating a mountain of plastic waste that must be disposed of. Some healthcare settings are now switching to reusable sterilisation containers1 to keep their medical instruments clean.

What does the future of single-use plastics in hospitals look like?

The pandemic has further highlighted the challenges around medical waste, with a vast increase in PPE to keep patients and healthcare workers protected from the spread of COVID-19. Wuhan alone produced six times as much waste at the peak of the outbreak in comparison to plastic production before the pandemic. At its worst, medical waste reached 240 tonnes2 in the city which is the approximate weight of an adult whale.

The World Health Organisation has created recommendations describing how this type of waste should be handled with care by sanitisation teams, but unfortunately such waste is necessary at the moment to contain the spread of the virus. Whilst we continue to deal with the devastating effects of the pandemic, healthcare facilities must prioritise finding other ways to reduce their dependence on single-use plastics and mitigate the environmental consequences.


How much waste does the NHS produce each year?

NHS Trusts report that their hospitals and healthcare facilities produce 133,000 tonnes of medical waste per year at a cost of £33.3 million. Over in the States, approximately 25% of their medical waste comes from plastic, according to National Geographic.

Single-use plastics is an ongoing problem in medical care, as healthcare facilities struggle to get the balance right between sustainability and offering optimal care for patients without risk of contamination. There are initiatives such as Practice Greenhealth that strive to educate medical decisionmakers on the changes they can make to reduce or even eliminate the use of plastic in medicine by relying on alternatives.

Are plastics always the answer in hospitals?

No. Although plastic is widely touted as being the safest and most hygienic approach to healthcare, there are studies suggesting that toxic chemicals found in plastics can negatively impact patient health. For example, PVC is known to include an additive known as DEHP which is a type of phthalate. In a 2016 study3, this chemical was proven to produce a neurocognitive decline in young people who were exposed to DEHP during intensive care treatment. In contrast, the Plastic Industry Association4 states that PVC is widely used due to its germ resistant properties whilst being easy to sanitise.

Does the TRITEMP™ thermometer require single-use plastics? 

No, the TRITEMP™ thermometer is as a non-contact thermometer and doesn’t require any single-use plastic probe covers as it never makes contact with a patient.

Using the TAP&TAKE technology, the clinician simply points the device at the patient’s forehead, between and slightly above the eyebrows and takes an accurate reading to assist in the patient’s diagnosis and treatment. As well as producing zero waste, the TRITEMP™ thermometer will also save hospitals and healthcare settings a considerable amount of money each year. It is a clinical grade thermometer which is accurate for up to 40,000 readings. Learn more about the TRITEMP™ product by contacting TriMedika today on +44 (0) 28 9026 5140 or email info@trimedika.com.

To find our more about TRITEMP™ - Enquire now