MEDIA ADVISORY | Rx PRESCRIPTION: Eliminate Harmful Plastics in Healthcare

As the global healthcare charges forward, it leaves behind a waste crisis waiting to explode and by 2050, the UN anticipates that there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans unless we change our behaviour and stop using single-use plastic items.

For instance, the World Health Organization1 estimates 16 billion injections are administered worldwide every year without proper disposal, while an average of 0.5kg of hazardous waste per hospital bed per day is generated in high-income countries like the US. For the record, Phnom Penh in Cambodia produced 342.54 kg of healthcare waste from 3,114 hospital beds, according to a 2003 Cambodia Environmental Association2 survey, and Japan creates 285,000 tons in infectious waste and 945,000 tons of non-infectious also in 2003.

Continued increases in plastic production and consumption, combined with wasteful uses, inefficient waste collection infrastructures and insufficient waste management facilities, especially in developing countries, mean that even achieving already established objectives for reductions in marine litter remains a huge challenge, and one unlikely to be met without a fundamental rethink of the ways in which we consume plastics3.

Like any other waste that is dumped indiscriminately, healthcare waste will find its way into the sea, and is regularly reported washed up on beaches (Stringer, news articles), sometimes having been transported huge distances.  For example, healthcare waste from the South Indian state of Kerala have been identified in Sri Lanka, over 500 km away (Srinivasan 2018)4.

Therefore, in an aim to assess ways by which the health care sector can use its purchasing power and its voice to address health impact of plastics from its  production to its use, treatment and disposal, Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) Asia conducted a series of Hospital Waste and Brand Audit in select hospitals in the Philippines and Indonesia.

It has been found that hospitals produce very unique waste items. For instance, Alabang Medical Clinic, Mary Johnston Hospital, St. Paul Hospital Cavite, RSUD Syamsudin SH Hospital and Universitas Gadjah Mada Hospital in Indonesia, --where the audits have been conducted-- produce sharp objects, such as used needles and syringes; pharmaceutical waste, like expired and contaminated drugs; and infectious waste, including soiled dressings, blood and bacterial cultures aside from the problematic regular food and plastic packaging waste.

To magnify it more, phthalates are often used in PVC (polyvinyl chloride) to make medical plastic items such as tubings and infusion bags soft and pliable. But phthalates are a known endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC) that can affect the hormonal development of humans especially children, pregnant women and those who have experienced long-exposure to such. And the occurrence of EDCs in the environment may as well pose adverse health effects, reproductive abnormalities and impaired development in wildlife species.

As a matter of fact, effects of endocrine disruption have already been reported in snails, mussels, crustaceans, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals5.

Some of the hospital waste audit highlights are the following;

  1. Plastics make up one third to half the non-food healthcare waste
  2. A significant proportion of the medical plastic waste is the same unnecessary and non-recyclable disposables that are generated by the general public and are causing the global plastics crisis
  3. Most plastic items found are not labeled, making it harder for medical professionals to make informed decisions about whether the products they are using are the best ones for them, the patients and the planet
  4. Hospitals mostly recycle their IV and PET bottles as well as paper materials in order to generate extra income and at the same time prevent indiscriminate dumping of healthcare waste
  5. The Report highlights the ways in which healthcare can start to escape the plastics trap that is doing so much damage to our planet

In addition, the audits clearly demonstrate the significance of plastics in the healthcare waste stream, representing between 49 and 72 percent, including sanitary products (diapers and sanitary products).

Advancement of global healthcare takes not just modern technologies and top-of-the-line medications, but also requires the realization of a truly sustainable and safe healthcare management system that understands the link between the sector’s landmark operations and the possible impacts it can create on the environment, wildlife and people’s health.

On October 29, 2018, HCHW Asia together with doctors and staff from the hospitals in the Philippines and Indonesia will release an Audit Report that will historically demonstrate the bulk of plastics in the hospital waste stream and importantly, to put emphasis on the role of the healthcare sector in positioning itself as a critical stakeholder for reduction and elimination of plastic pollution.###







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