Research and innovation

Experts address single-use plastics in healthcare

A £5.9m initiative is seeking to address the growing problem of waste and pollution from medical supplies that are used once then discarded.

Researchers hope to reduce the environmental impact of single-use items such as syringes, diagnostic tests and face masks, in a sector thought to contribute up to 5 per cent of global carbon emissions.

The international collaboration, led by social scientists and historians, will focus on the proliferation of single-use plastics in our health systems – from aid centres in remote rural areas to well-resourced city hospitals.

They will investigate the impact of single-use items, which generate carbon emissions in their manufacture, transportation and disposal.

These contribute to pollution in our soil, air and seas, and are part of a linear economy based on waste and disposal.

Medical waste including gloves, syringes and face masks viewed inside a hospital bin
Single-use medical waste represents an environmental challenge.

International study

Researchers will seek to understand how a throwaway culture became the norm in healthcare, and gauge the local impacts of single-use materials on patients, healthcare teams and waste workers.

The Wellcome Discovery Award-backed project – called After the Single Use – will straddle eight countries and harness a range of research to find possible solutions.

The growing impact of climate change on human health is widely discussed.

By contrast, the effect that the global healthcare industry is having on our climate and planet is only just beginning to be recognised.

Professor Alice StreetSchool of Social and Political Science

A report by Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany found the healthcare sector contributes between 4 and 5 per cent of carbon emissions globally.

The COP28 Declaration on Climate and Health stressed the need to curb emissions and reduce health sector waste as a key priority.

“We urgently need to better understand how systems developed to protect and restore us are harming us and the planet.

And we need to transform our norms, values and systems to build a circular healthcare economy – one that supports reuse and regeneration of materials.

Professor Alice StreetSchool of Social and Political Science

To explore these solutions, the collective is partnering with Health Care Without Harm, an organisation that advocates for healthcare sustainability.

Studies in India, Senegal, Switzerland, Norway, Tanzania, US, UK and Papua New Guinea will bring fresh insights into the problem of healthcare-related plastics in different locations globally.

Researchers will work with environmental justice movements to document the uneven impacts of waste from single-use plastics in different places.

The team will collaborate with engineers and medical device developers to find solutions. They will also work with Health Care Without Harm to draw up guidance for managers and policymakers.

We want to listen to local perspectives to better understand what has brought us to the present moment of crisis in medical waste.

And we want to learn more about the experiences of local solution-makers who are helping to build new, innovative paths forward.

Professor Alice StreetSchool of Social and Political Science

Related links

Health Care Without Harm

Image credit: Getty Images