September 23, 2021

Embracing an Environmentally Sustainable Approach to Healthcare Waste Management

At the end of September, individuals and organizations from around the world are gathering in New York City to talk about the challenges of climate change and how we as a global community can do more, fast. Climate Week NYC, hosted in part by the United Nations, brings together business and government leaders to encourage collaboration, share best practices, and spark action.

Whether during this week or as a result of it, healthcare organizations should be a strong voice in sustainability efforts, doing their part to minimize their environmental impact.

How Do Healthcare Organizations Affect the Environment?

According to a recent assessment, the healthcare sector is a significant contributor to climate change, responsible for generating 4.4% of the world’s greenhouse gases. In the U.S., healthcare organizations are estimated to account for about 10% of annual carbon dioxide emissions.

There are some unique aspects of healthcare delivery that contribute to these numbers. For instance, the widespread use of single-use items to prevent the spread of infection can drive up the volume of plastic waste, contributing to increased emissions generated from the production, packaging, and transportation. This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic as organizations generate more personal protective equipment and sharps waste due to testing and vaccines.

Pharmaceutical waste is another aspect of healthcare delivery that can impact the environment if not handled properly. If pharmaceutical waste is flushed down the drain, for example, harmful chemicals can enter waterways and leach into the surrounding environment. In fact, researchers have identified traces of pharmaceuticals in the drinking water supplies of some 40 million Americans.

Additionally, federal, state, and local regulations continue to evolve, making adherence by healthcare organizations a challenge. Earlier this year the Biden Administration established the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity.  One of its priorities is to assist with regulatory efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout the healthcare sector. In light of this, it is critical for healthcare organizations to review and understand their carbon footprint.

Better Waste Management Can Help Your Organization Become More Sustainable

Hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare organizations generate thousands of tons of waste per year. There are steps that your organization can take in managing that waste which may support your overall sustainability goals. Here are some steps to consider.

  • Consider deploying reusable sharps containers. Sharps waste is common in healthcare settings and the volume has only increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. By using a reusable sharps container, you can provide a safe disposal solution that reduces your reliance on single-use plastic. One Stericycle reusable sharps container can be washed for reuse up to 600 times. A reusable sharps solution contributes to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions associated with single-use containers. Use Stericycle’s Carbon Footprint Estimator to see how your healthcare organization could reduce greenhouse gas emissions if you switch from single use, disposable containers to Stericycle reusable sharps containers.  You can be confident about Stericycle’s reusable containers, which are disinfected and designed pursuant to applicable regulatory requirements. Furthermore, by using reusable sharps containers you may reduce or eliminate spend associated with disposable sharps containers.

  • Safely dispose of pharmaceuticals to protect waterways. Healthcare organizations should also review their pharmaceutical disposal plans as part of a holistic sustainability strategy that goes beyond reducing their carbon footprint. Non-hazardous unused medications are often flushed or discarded with solid waste, which means harmful chemicals could end up in landfills or waterways where they can leach into the environment. Proper disposal of pharmaceutical waste plays a critical role in protecting communities.
    Stericycle’s pharmaceutical waste solutions can help efficiently manage hazardous and non-hazardous pharmaceutical waste. Through waste characterization, staff training, and ongoing support for your team members, Stericycle can help you take a leading role in protecting the environment while ensuring safety and regulatory compliance.

  • Seek a waste management partner that prioritizes sustainability. At Stericycle, our vision is to help shape a healthier and safer world for everyone, everywhere, every day—a responsibility we take seriously. Stericycle was a pioneer in sustainable medical waste disposal and continues to this day to innovate safe and compliant solutions that protect the team members, patients, and communities of healthcare organizations around the world. Our regulated medical waste management solutions and secure information destruction services are a key part of this effort, and we never lose sight of the fact that hundreds of thousands of customers from communities around the world are counting on us daily.
    In 2020, we treated 1.5 billion pounds of medical waste, diverted 104 million pounds of plastic from landfills, safely disposed of 40 million pounds of unused pharmaceuticals, and recycled 1.1 billion pounds of paper. We have also worked toward reducing our carbon footprint and establishing processes that conserve resources. For example, we have started formally tracking our facilities’ use of natural resources and begun the process to establish our baseline greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, we have been upgrading our facilities to LED lighting and are working to optimize our truck routing to reduce miles driven by our fleet.

Preserving the Environment Requires an Ongoing Commitment

These strategies can help your organization on the road to sustainability, but there will always be more work to do. Having a waste management partner that aligns with your goals is key to making waste management as safe and sustainable as possible.

Learn more about how Stericycle can partner with you to safeguard patients, staff, and the environment. 

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