Every industry faces unique issues when it comes to reducing waste. Restaurants are grappling with the switch to sustainable takeout packaging, while the textiles world is responding to the challenge of scaling down from fast fashion. Healthcare is no exception, and it’s a sector that comes with distinct challenges.

Healthcare settings generate a significant amount of waste. A 2019 report on 110 Canadian hospitals found they generated nearly 87,000 tonnes of waste annually, about the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – and this doesn’t include waste from long-term care homes, clinics, or private practices.

A main driver of this waste are single-use items, which are common and necessary in healthcare. Things like gloves, cotton swabs, syringes, and bandages are single-use, and for good reason – to protect and promote patient health. Indeed, the Canadian government’s recent single-use plastics ban included exemptions for healthcare.

Another factor specific to healthcare is the delineation of the waste stream, between “regular” and biohazardous waste. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 85% of waste produced in healthcare settings is non-hazardous and can be disposed of the same as household garbage. The rest must be treated as hazardous, including things like used syringes, human waste, vaccine products or medications. Though there’s a clear delineation of the waste streams, contamination continues to be a problem.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal published a review of waste issues in the country’s healthcare system, and improper disposal was named as a major one. According to Laurette Geldenhuys of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), much of the garbage produced in healthcare is improperly discarded with hazardous waste. It is then either unnecessarily incinerated or sanitized, adding both cost and greenhouse gas emissions.

Geldenhuys noted that many physicians are confused about how to properly dispose of waste, and in an intense, high-stress job, this can fall to the wayside. She tackled the problem in her own lab by conducting an audit, bringing in additional bins and bags for recycling and garbage, and educating staff. In just one month, the lab’s special waste output was reduced by 75%.

While this proves that better waste management is possible, there’s also a need for more sustainable products in healthcare, especially single-use items.

5REDO is currently working on a prototype for compostable gloves, as these are some of the most common items to end up in landfill and are otherwise not reusable. The same goes for things like cotton swabs, packaging, or wound dressing. There are reusable or compostable versions of these on the market, and phasing them into healthcare – while ensuring patient health – could be a crucial step.

Healthcare is essential, and so is the innovation to make it more sustainable. While many sectors are focused on shifting reliance from unsustainable products – like sourcing energy from wind or solar rather than fossil fuels – healthcare isn’t going anywhere. Instead, it must adapt, as it has for centuries, to best practices for both patients and the planet.