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Home » Global Resilience » Making healthcare more sustainable by scrapping single-use

Professor Mahmood Bhutta (DPhil FRCS)

Professor of Sustainable Healthcare at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, and Honorary Consultant and Clinical Green Lead for University Hospitals Sussex

Swapping single-use equipment for reusables in hospitals could save money, lower emissions and reduce infection risks. So, why are we still throwing so much kit away?

Globally, healthcare contributes 4.4% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Medicines, machines and the high-energy demands of hospital buildings contribute to healthcare’s carbon footprint. One simple initiative could drastically reduce this environmental and financial cost: swapping single-use products for reusables.

Wasted resources in healthcare

“About three-quarters of everything used in healthcare is thrown away,” says Professor Mahmood Bhutta, NHS surgeon and Professor of Sustainable Healthcare at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS). While some healthcare equipment cannot be safely reused, like needles, Prof Bhutta says a lot of the equipment could be made reusable.

“Currently, 75% of the drapes and gowns worn in the NHS are single-use. There is no reason for them to be thrown away; they can be cleaned and sterilised,” says Prof Bhutta. “In surgery, we use a harmonic scalpel to dissect certain tissues. Each one costs the NHS about £600 and, because they are single-use, we’re throwing away hundreds of thousands every year. Yet, we know for certain they can be made reusable.”

Currently, 75% of the drapes and
gowns worn in the NHS are single-use.

Reusable tools enhance patient safety

In some cases, ditching single-use items can make patients safer: even throw-away plastic gloves contain bacteria when they come out of the box, according to Prof Bhutta. “I, as a patient, would much rather someone be touching me with cleaned and washed hands than the contaminated glove.”

The Sustainable Healthcare Group at BSMS, led by Prof Bhutta, swapped disposable instruments with reusable tools in several of the hospital’s surgical and outpatient departments. His team predicts it could save the hospital over £200,000 each year while, crucially, maintaining high safety standards.

Promoting reusable medical equipment

Despite studies that show the swaps bear no increased risk of infection, some remain sceptical. Meaningful change requires incentives for companies to design reusable products, enabling healthcare staff to safely reuse equipment.

“We need everybody in this complex dissipated system to be saying the same thing: this is what you should do, and this is what’s safe,” says Prof Bhutta. “Government, hospital executives and healthcare workers should agree to preferentially buy and use reusable equipment in the NHS — anywhere and everywhere it is safe to do so.”

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