Reducing the NHS’s carbon footprint by choosing greener alternatives can make a significant contribution to tackling climate change, writes Elaine Winkley
The NHS is an organisation focused on clinical performance – meeting targets and driving development all within an ever-tightening budget. Often forgotten in the midst of this, but becoming ever more topical in the face of growing environmental awareness, is the impact healthcare and the NHS has on our planet.
Our aim as doctors and healthcare professionals is to do no harm and to champion health but through our work are we harming the planet and spoiling the health of future generations?
The NHS’ carbon footprint in England is 22.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents, 3 per cent of all UK carbon dioxide emissions. It has been reduced by 18.5 per cent in the last 10 years but more can and must be done in the face of evidence that not doing so will do harm.
Locally, air pollution is a well-established impairment to respiratory health, contributing to asthma and COPD exacerbations and increasing the risk of cancers. However, as an organisation, more can be done to address the inconsistencies of its overall aim – to champion health – such as addressing: the use of anaesthetic gases; the inefficiencies in logistics and power generation; and the escape of medicines into waterways and the wider environment.
Alternatives are available in practically all areas within medicine – so why aren’t we using them? Why aren’t we choosing the greener option? From inhalers to anaesthetics and vehicles transporting goods and waste around our hospitals, we can make changes to help our planet and help the people we care for at the same time.
Waste in the NHS is massive – an organisation focused on single-use items all pre-wrapped and imported – every trust can reduce waste by identifying products not necessary, more recycling can be done! We all have our part to play – what can yours be?
Hospital operating theatres generate approximately 2,300kg of anaesthetic waste a year, 40 per cent of which could be reclassified as domestic waste and recycled
Look around hospitals, GP surgeries, offices within trusts – is there a recycling bin? Replace a domestic black bin with a clear bag, an easy change that can increase recycling massively.
Hospital operating theatres generate approximately 2,300kg of anaesthetic waste a year, 40 per cent of which could be reclassified as domestic waste and recycled. Operating theatres are not alone – every department will be able to reclassify waste and increase recycling if they look for opportunities and provide education.
Can we reduce waste within healthcare in both clinical and non-clinical environments? Many items can often be reused rather than thrown away. Healthcare encompasses so many small business units – if they spoke to each other more could purchasing be reduced and resources utilised more?
Quite often one department or organisation is trying to purchase new equipment, while another has it lying dormant – is facilitating collaboration and communication between groups a way of becoming a greener organisation?
Companies need to be challenged by individuals and by organisations to source greener alternatives to facilitate a more sustainable and greener healthcare environment
The vastness of the NHS helps us to negotiate with pharmaceutical and healthcare companies when it comes to pricing so now we must also utilise this scale to lean on manufacturers. Get them to reduce packaging, find alternatives to plastic and engage in schemes where items can be returned and reused. Companies need to be challenged by individuals and by organisations to source greener alternatives to facilitate a more sustainable and greener healthcare environment.
Should the government help by enforcing a policy that each trust has to reduce its waste and increase recycling or face a penalty? Or can we be proactive as individuals who care about people and the planet to acknowledge the problem and drive change? If we stand together as an organisation who care about our impact on future generations, we can make a difference!
Northumbria Healthcare Foundation Trust uses electric vehicles to transport goods between its multiple sites, also, it has recently championed changes to increase recycling and reduce domestic waste trust-wide. It has embraced culture change and is doing its part to reduce healthcare’s impact on the environment in the North East.
Let us protect our shared environment and steward the planet for future generations – we exist to save lives and protect health – so let’s advocate this on all levels.
Elaine Winkley is a scholar at The Healthcare Leadership Academy