Towards plastic-free healthcare in Europe

Contact: Arianna Gamba

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Plastics have become indispensable in the healthcare sector and they are facilitating the work of healthcare professionals all over the world. The low price of plastic and its relative ease of manufacturing has led, however, to overuse of plastic products and packaging, often in situations where they are not needed. Plastics are also rarely recycled, especially plastic-made medical materials - this is concerning because plastic, from production, to use and disposal, can be harmful to both human health and the environment.

Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) Europe is conducting the project Towards plastic-free healthcare in Europe, with funding from the Flotilla Foundation. Through this project, HCWH Europe aims to transform the use of plastic in hospitals and assist healthcare facilities in their transition to a circular economy model and reducing unnecessary plastic use.

Key objectives

The long-term objective of this project is to reduce the negative impact that plastics from the European healthcare sector have on both the human health and the environment. This project aims to transform current practices so that plastic use is reduced within the European healthcare sector and to support the sector in transitioning to a circular economy model.

Project steps 

As facilitator of the project, HCWH Europe will work together with European healthcare providers to assess the plastic use in their facilities and raise awareness on plastics and circular healthcare. Through the project, we also aim to start discussions on problem solving for single-use plastics (medical and non-medical) and unsustainable disposal methods and mobilise demand for sustainable plastic and packaging alternatives within European markets.

This project is divided into three pillars of action: research, capacity building, and scaling up.

  1. Research – Plastic waste audits to investigate the use of plastic and to reveal the opportunities and barriers for increasing circularity and reducing plastic use.
  2. Building capacity - Educate healthcare professionals and procurers on the environmental and health impacts of plastics and promote solutions in line with the waste hierarchy.
  3. Scaling up - Expand the plastic-free healthcare movement by disseminating project results and launching a communication campaign that targets priority plastics products for substitution or reduction, e.g. gloves, incontinence products, personal protective equipment. 

The waste hierarchy. P.11, Measuring and reducing plastics in the healthcare sector (2021)

Project update

The first phase of the Towards plastic-free healthcare project successfully concluded in September 2021 and has given participants a greater understanding of plastic use and solutions in healthcare settings. It has further provided momentum for plastic action in the healthcare sector.

The project will continue for another 12 months as we continue to conduct plastic waste audits in healthcare as well as introduce new Circular Healthcare trainings and a communications campaign with project partners. 

Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, our project partners remain motivated to reduce plastic use in healthcare. The pandemic has in fact starkly revealed the negative consequences of healthcare’s overreliance on single-use plastics, with disruptions in supply chains and shortages of essential supplies hindering the safe delivery of care, as well as the difficulty of handling mountains of waste. Healthcare’s plastic problem is now more visible than ever and healthcare professionals are increasingly aware of the need to address plastic use in healthcare. 

During the first phase of the project we conducted waste audits in five of our project partner hospitals – you can learn more about the audits and the methodology in our publication Measuring and reducing plastics in the healthcare sector, which can be found in the project resources.

In total, we analysed 1,330kg of waste from general, sanitary/offensive, and plastic recycling waste streams - nearly half (48%) was identified as plastic. The plastic products that were found in the largest quantities during the waste audits were wipes, gloves, and nappies. Food contact materials were also found frequently. One project participant identified six product categories that accounted for over 60% of the total plastic used annually:

P.14, Measuring and reducing plastics in the healthcare sector (2021)

Project participants drafted their plastic action plans in response to the audit findings, they devised strategies to tackle plastic waste in their healthcare facilities including:

  • Reduce consumption of disposable medical plastics by using reusable gowns.
  • Replace plastic containers in IV administration systems with glass.
  • Reduce the consumption of examination gloves through information and awareness campaigns.
  • Reduce plastic in food services with reusable tableware, alternative materials, and increase the use of tap water
  • Reduce plastic in laundry by replacing polyethylene packaging with smaller paper packaging.

The next phase of reducing plastic in European healthcare

Building on the project experiences so far, HCWH Europe will continue to support European hospitals to reduce unnecessary plastics. In this next phase, we are seeking to inspire and educate healthcare professionals to engage with their communities about plastic risks and reduction opportunities. We have also expanded our project to include new project participants from Germany, France, and Cyprus.

Over the next 12 months, HCWH Europe will continue to research the types of plastic products used in healthcare, improving the sector-level understanding. Through further plastic waste audits, we will work with project partners to identify opportunities for plastic reduction through plastic waste audits. We will compare the new audit data against the results of the first phase.

To further improve awareness and understanding of plastic in healthcare, HCWH Europe will deliver a Circular Healthcare training programme to educate healthcare procurers, sustainability managers, and medical professionals on the health and environmental impacts of plastics. The training will provide guidance and materials for healthcare professionals to raise awareness within their communities on the risks associated with plastic use and also focus on reduction strategies and practices.

Building on the first phase results of the project, HCWH Europe will scale up action for plastic reduction by designing a communication campaign that focuses on key priority plastic products. HCWH Europe will also continue working on solutions for reducing or substituting plastic products by engaging with the Healthcare Market Transformation Network.

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HCWH Europe gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the European Commission (EC)’s LIFE programme and The Flotilla Foundation. HCWH Europe is solely responsible for the content of this project and related materials. The views expressed do not reflect the official views of the EC or The Flotilla Foundation.