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A case for reusable and sustainable medical linens

Supplier: WinC By: Jenny Barton
14 May, 2015

When choosing linen for your surgery, do you consider the hidden environmental cost of medical waste going to landfill?

When I began work in the medical field, in what was a lifetime ago, anything disposable was a rarity. Everything was washed, sterilised and re-used.

Recycling had never been heard of then. It simply did not occur to anyone that one day single use items would become the 'norm.'

All of this changed with the advent of HIV and today, the use of disposable everything in the medical field is a reality. This has led to medical waste increasingly becoming a problem resulting in moves to explore ways to reduce this problem through recycling, substitution and reusing.

In Victoria alone, the public hospital sector produces the waste equivalent of 200,000 households and spends about 10 million dollars annually disposing of this waste. What this means is not only is this generated waste a problem, but the cost to dispose of it is incredibly significant.

Why is medical waste increasing?

The amount of packaging with medical items is excessive. Reusable items have been replaced, with single use, disposable items becoming the product of choice. Infection control, cost and ease of use have been flagged as reasons for this increased use, but the selection of medical products is often based on personal choice, with no consideration of environmental impacts.

Estimates have pegged the amount of medical waste per patient to be around the 5 kg mark. If you think about it, this number is really not that surprising, given that single-use versions of many items such as drapes, plastic theatre gowns, airway and respiratory devices, and plastic bowls are doing the rounds in Australian hospitals and medical practices.

The full environmental cost of disposing of such amounts of medical waste is not considered. Neither is the monetary cost of such disposal. Both of these things should be thoroughly examined. The focus seems to be convenience and the bottom line; the perceived higher cost of reusable product as opposed to the disposable one.

How can you reduce medical waste?

There are many ways to reduce waste and costs, and it isn't difficult. You can start small by simply swapping back to reusable linens and textiles in your medical practice. The key is in understanding your practice and setting goals. Think about the amount of disposable linen per patient you are using, and think about how much is non-hazardous.

The outlay may be a little bit more in the beginning, but given linen is expected to last five years, even with constant use and laundering, the overall cost is significantly less than constantly purchasing disposable linen. A life cycle analysis was conducted, showing that reusable surgical linens are environmentally and financially superior to their disposable counterparts.

In 2010, the University of Maryland Medical Centre avoided the disposal of 138,748 pounds of waste; in doing so, they saved about 38,000 dollars in hauling costs by using reusable surgical linens. In addition, a study conducted that same year found that surgeons preferred reusable linens as a result of increased comfort, ease of use and superior protective properties.

Increased use of reusable medical textiles provides an array of benefits. Not only does it decrease waste and costs, it also improves patient comfort, gives your practice a more professional image, and provides a more sustainable option than single-use items that are likely to end up in landfill.