Background. Sustainable purchasing can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at healthcare facilities (HCF). A previous study found that converting from disposable to reusable sharps containers (DSC, RSC) reduced sharps waste stream GHG by 84% but, in finding transport distances impacted significantly on GHG outcomes, recommended further studies where transport distances are large. This case-study examines the impact on GHG of nation-wide transport distances when a large US health system converted from DSC to RSC.
Methods. The study examined the alternate use of DSC and RSC at a large US university hospital where: the source of polymer was distant from the RSC manufacturing plant; both manufacturing plants were over 3,000 km from the HCF; and the RSC disposal plant was considerably further from the HCF than was the DSC disposal plant. Using a “cradle to grave” life cycle assessment (LCA) tool we calculated annual GHG emissions (CO2, CH4, N2O) in metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (MTCO2eq) to assess the impact on global warming potential (GWP) of each container system. Primary energy input data was used wherever possible and region-specific impact conversions used to calculate GWP of each activity over a 12-month period. Unit process GHG were collated into Manufacture, Transport, Washing, and Treatment & disposal. Emission totals were workload-normalized and analysed using CHI2 test with P ≤0.05 and rate ratios at 95% CL.
Results. The hospital reduced its annual GWP by 168 MTCO2eq (-64.5%; p < 0.001), and annually eliminated 50.2 tonnes of plastic DSC and 8.1 tonnes of cardboard from the sharps waste stream. Of the plastic eliminated, 31.8 tonnes were diverted from landfill and 18.4 from incineration.
Discussion. Unlike GHG reduction strategies dependent on changes in staff behaviour (waste segregation, recycling, turning off lights, car-pooling, etc), purchasing strategies can enable immediate, sustainable and institution-wide GHG reductions to be achieved. Medical waste containers contribute significantly to the supply chain carbon footprint and, although non-sharp medical waste volumes have decreased significantly with avid segregation, sharps wastes have increased, and can account for 50% of total medical waste volume. Thus converting from DSC to RSC can assist reduce the GWP footprint of the medical waste stream. This study confirmed that large transport distances between polymer manufacturer and container manufacturer; container manufacturer and user; and/or between user and processing facilities, can significantly impact the GWP of sharps containment systems. However, even with large transport distances, we found that a large university health system significantly reduced the GWP of their sharps waste stream by converting from DSC to RSC.