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How can EMS help reduce medical waste?

Editor's note: A human rights investigator for the United Nations says up to a quarter of the world's trash from hospitals, clinics, labs, blood banks and mortuaries is hazardous and much more needs to be done to regulate it.

To be honest, I rarely think about the medical waste I generate during a patient encounter. Most of it is non contaminated — items like gloves, tape, gauze, disposable head blocks, plastic packaging, paper gurney sheets, and paper towels used for drying washed hands and cleaning products. Some of the waste is contaminated and needs special disposal procedures, such as needles, drug vials, blood and other bodily fluid soaked materials.

In an age of disposable equipment and one-use-only policies, this article made me think a bit more about how we could try to reduce the amount of trash the health care system produces daily. I've already seen more efficient packaging of items such as intravenous tubing and drug ampules — that's a start. We still use a lot of plastic in the packaging though, and I'm not sure how much of it is recyclable.

A lot of plastic is also within the products themselves, like bag masks, supplemental oxygen devices, even intravenous catheters. I think the problems are compounded when these products need to be disposed in a very expensive manner after they become contaminated. I think that we might be able to at least divert some of the waste out of the biohazard disposal route by having it disposed in the regular waste cycle. For example, empty glass medication containers like ampules and prefills could be recycled like any other glass container. Stericycle works with healthcare facilities to manage their medical waste streams.

Also consider recycling materials that may have been opened but not used, or have expired and can't be returned. Local EMS training programs generally welcome supplies that local services can no longer use. Check with your program director to see if there is a specific need or how donations can be delivered.

I'd be interested in hearing from folks who have aggressive recycling programs in their systems. What do you do to help reduce medical waste?

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