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Medical Industry Can Reduce Its Carbon Footprint by Relying Less on Single-use Supplies, Lancet Commentary


According to a recent Lancet commentary much of the healthcare industry’s reliance on disposable materials is born out of fear and efficiency, with minimal evidence to support the superiority of some disposable supplies over thoroughly sterilized reusable ones. The authors suggest that medical waste could be reduced, and environmental issues mitigated, by revisiting more sustainable and reusable options.

The commentary—on which Maria Merritt, PhD, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and in the Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, served as co-author with colleagues Jeremy Greene of the Berman Institute and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Caroline Skolnik of the MacLean Center and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine—was published October 15, 2022.

Around 80 percent of the health care industry’s carbon footprint is a result of the production, transportation, use, and disposal of the single-use medical supply chain, the authors note. Decades ago, medical supplies like many other common household items were made of reusable metal, cloth, and glass with little to no plastic used in their construction or packaging. However, nowadays virtually every piece of medical equipment such as surgical masks, syringes, and surgical tools are wrapped in, or composed of, plastic.  

The first major incorporation of plastics in the medical world occurred in the 1980s and 1990s alongside a cultural shift heavily related to the growing fear of transmissible diseases, most notably HIV/AIDS. In addition to fear of infectious disease, it quickly became cheaper to purchase disposables rather than run sterilization procedures and a decision was made in most cases to favor lower cost supplies over medical equipment efficiency and long-term sustainability.

As the authors stress, however, there are many potential drawbacks to a strict reliance on single-use, disposable medical supplies, such as potential shortages. The recent COVID-19 pandemic illuminated this risk when disposable surgical masks, N95 respirators, and other essential personal protective equipment quickly became scarce and required single-use materials to be rationed or reused. As the authors also point out, when the transition to disposables occurred, a new mode of infectious transmission arose. As an example, the authors note that an estimated 1 million people each year contract infectious diseases in low-income countries and marginalized communities due to poorly disposed of contaminated waste.

The authors conclude that reverting to more “circular-life” high-quality, reusable materials may lead to overall lower equipment costs and that the healthcare sector can transform itself to reemphasize health equity in the cost of care and the cost to the environment.

Read the complete commentary here.