Half of Hospitals Recycling At Least Some Medical Waste

by | Jul 7, 2010

About half of U.S. hospitals are recycling at least some of the medical supplies the would otherwise dispose of, as the health care industry is beginning to tackle the problem of medical waste, according to a report in the New York Times.

One hospital owner, the Hospital Corporation of America, recycled 94 tons last year. HCA owns 163 hospitals throughout the country. Reprocessing and remanufacturing programs from Ascent Healthcare Solutions has saved its hospital partners more than $82 million in supply chain costs during the first half of 2009.

The paper reported that the amount of medical waste produced in the U.S. is completely unknown, since the last estimate of 2 million tons is from several decades ago. Although hospitals have traditionally been unreceptive to calls to reduce or recycle their medical waste, the increased stress of a prolonged economic downturn as forced health care providers to look for ways to reduce costs, including costs associated with the use and disposal of medical waste.

The report highlighted one environmental non-profit, Practice Greenhealth, which counts 80 companies and 1,100 hospitals among its members. The group is trying to find new ways to reduce waste in the operating room, which according to the report generates 20 to 30 percent of hospital medical waste.

Changing the hospital culture of profligacy with its equipment and supplies can save hospitals money on the purchasing end, while reducing the amount of waste produced can save on landfill fees, the paper reported.

Disposable single-use medical devices, for example, can be recycled and resterilized at processing centers, than resold to hospitals at 40 to 60 percent less than the cost of unrecycled products.

The use of disposable shot up during the 80s, when many reusable pieces of equipment were gradually replaced with disposable plastic alternatives, often in response to concerns about exposing patients to HIV. Safety concerns, and a protest by the medical device trade group the Advanced Medical Technology Association, slowed the adoption of recycling schemes for medical waste. However, a 2008 study by the Government Accountability Office found no increased risk to patient health due to the use of recycled medical supplies.

Hospitals are also asking medical suppliers to reduce the amount of equipment they include in sterilized, single-use packs. These single-use devices, though they may never be used in the course of a surgery, are usually thrown out once the sterile pack is opened. By reducing the number of devices within the pack, hospitals have reduced the overall amount of their waste production. One operating room team was able to save their hospital $104,658 by asking suppliers to reduce their packs from 44 pieces of equipment to 27, according to the report.

Kaiser Permanente recently unveiled a Sustainability Scorecard, which requires suppliers to provide environmental data for medical equipment and products used in its hospitals, medical offices and other facilities. Meanwhile, GE Healthcare and ten other medical device manufacturers in the European Union have committed to reduce the average energy consumption of new ultrasound products by 25 percent by 2012.

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