September 12, 2022

Embracing an Environmentally Sustainable Approach to Healthcare Waste Management

Climate change is not a problem of the future and cannot be passed to the next generation to fix. The world continues to feel its impacts—the loss of sea ice, melting glaciers and ice sheets, sea level rise, and more intense heat waves. The biggest contributor to changes in the earth’s climate is heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

According to the United Nations, global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are not close to where they need to be in order to maintain a livable climate, and support for the most vulnerable countries affected by the results of climate change is falling short.

Many industries are taking steps to change the way they operate in order to reduce their impact on the environment. Healthcare organizations are no exception and 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 Lancet report, the healthcare sector is a significant contributor to climate change, responsible for generating 4.4% of the world’s greenhouse gases. In Canada, healthcare organizations are estimated to account for about 4.6% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions and more than 200,000 tons of other pollutants.

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. Organizations continue to study the presence of pharmaceuticals in drinking and surface water and their effects on communities and the environment.

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 2021, diverted 47 million kilograms of sharps waste plastic from landfills, safely disposed of 18 million kilograms of pharmaceutical waste, and recycled 499 million kilograms 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 kilometers 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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