By Deborah Abrams Kaplan – January 12, 2021

Some waste is inevitable, but supply chain leaders are finding ways to reduce the quantity — reusing and recycling when possible and adjusting procurement and packaging.

Acquiring enough personal protective equipment and supplies to test for and treat COVID-19 in the United States was a major challenge in 2020. With case numbers rising and vaccines rolling out, managing supplies and reducing waste continues as a huge issue this year.

Isolation gowns, gloves, masks, needles, syringes and vials discarded after use: some waste is inevitable, but supply chain leaders are finding ways to reduce the quantity, reusing and recycling when possible and adjusting procurement and packaging to help the environment and sometimes their bottom line.

Hospitals generate around 30 pounds of waste per patient per day, said Janet Howard, member engagement director of Practice Greenhealth, a nonprofit environmental stewardship membership organization. The Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council said that amounts to about 14,000 tons of waste daily, a quarter of which is plastic packaging and products. The World Health Organization estimates that about 85% of hospital waste is noninfectious, making the bulk of it easier to dispose and potentially recycle.

Sources of medical waste

While the term PPE entered the general lexicon thanks to COVID-19, it was already a staple of the healthcare system.

Gowns

After gloves, medical gowns are the second most commonly used PPE item in healthcare settings, and currently 80% or more of isolation gowns used in the U.S. are disposable.

Disposable gowns have gotten more expensive and harder to procure with hospitals experiencing surges in case numbers and providers needing frequent gown changes.

“I’m shocked that is a challenge right now. There’s no reason they couldn’t be reusing them,” by purchasing launderable gowns, Howard said. “Some infection control departments insist on disposable protective equipment, but there is research and evidence that disposable isn’t necessarily safer than reusable.”

With pandemic-related supply chain breakdowns, hospitals already using reusable PPE before the pandemic felt more prepared, she said.

UCLA Medical Center started switching to reusable isolation gowns in 2012, diverting almost 300 tons of waste from landfills, and saving more than $1.1 million in purchasing costs in a three-year period. A study published in the American Journal of Infection Control showed that laundered medical gowns were more durable and provided better protection than disposable gowns, even after 75 industrial launderings.

Vials and needles

With vaccines, there are fewer opportunities for recycling, said Howard. Glass vials and needles must be disposed of in a sharps container, though some containers can be disinfected and reused after safely disposing of the contents.

“It’s harder for those in remote areas,” Howard said, as those facilities may get less frequent disposal service due to their size or location.