How COVID-19 affected the production of plastic waste
How COVID-19 affected the production of plastic waste

How COVID-19 affected the production of plastic waste

The MGH Institute of Health Professions Center for Climate Change, Climate Justice and Health hosted its latest Grand Rounds webinar, “Inpatient Medicine Waste Audit and the Plastic Pandemic”, sponsored by the MGH Center for Environment and Health, on 16 February. Sustainability leaders from across MGH discussed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on inpatient waste generation as well as the results of the hospital’s waste review in August 2021.

The United States is currently the largest plastic waste generator in the world, with the healthcare industry alone producing an estimated 5 million tonnes of waste each year and nearly 10% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

“As healthcare providers, we should be particularly concerned about the implications of the care we provide and how it affects public health,” said Christian Mewaldt, MD, associate at the MGH Center for Environment and Health. “Unfortunately, plastic affects our health at both ends of its life cycle – the production side and the waste side.”

Mewaldt used “Cancer Alley” as an example of how destructive plastic production can be. This long stretch of Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is home to a high concentration of plastic manufacturing facilities. Residents are exposed to some of the highest concentrations of carcinogenic chemicals in the country, prompting the UN Human Rights Council to describe the area as an example of environmental racism.

“It’s a strong African American society,” Mewaldt said. “Communities and people of color are increasingly being used to locate these facilities.”

As for the waste side of plastic’s 450-year life cycle, Mewaldt estimates that only 9% of plastic waste is actually recycled. Materials that are not recycled end up in landfills, decompose into methane and ethyne and contaminate the water supply. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, plastic waste production has increased around the world.

To assess MGH’s production of plastic waste during the pandemic, Jon Eisen, MD, associated with the MGH Center for Environment and Health, reviewed the results of the waste audit for the inpatient medical unit in August. Waste audit is used to quantify and characterize waste generated in a particular environment. They also help identify ways to improve waste generation, diversion and elimination.

“When we think about our waste, medicine units are the backbone of patient care,” Eisen said. “We see a large number of patients, so it would make sense that we generate a lot of waste in that process.”

To complete the audit, waste from Phillips 21 was collected and sorted over a 24-hour period and stored in the solarium on the floor. It was then weighed, transported to another storage room and disposed of by environmental services.

Eventually, the total mass and distribution of waste were quantified, and objects of interest were cataloged, weighed, and counted. A total of 559 plastic dresses, 2,541 plastic gloves, 86 masks and 20 face shields / glasses were counted.

“When we reviewed the results of our audit, we found that we had accumulated close to 300 pounds of waste over a 24-hour period in Phillips 21,” Eisen said. “Almost 90% of that waste was municipal solid waste. More than half of the municipal solid waste was plastic, and 70% of that plastic was PPE.”

This revision alone accounted for close to 0.537 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to burning 594 pounds of coal or charging 65,322 smartphones.

Looking ahead to ways to reduce hospital waste, Mewaldt suggested eliminating disposable plastic toiletries, switching from disposable to recyclable dresses, and composting more food waste.

“MGH has successfully implemented a number of waste reduction measures in the past,” Mewaldt said. “If we were to take some of these next steps, we could improve the hospital’s waste production even more.”

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