From left: WellSpan President and CEO Roxanna Gapstur is led on a tour of the Center for Regenerative Design and Collaboration recycling center by Chief Operating Officer Ross Gibby.

Image courtesy of the Center for Regenerative Design and Collaboration

With a focus on community health, hospitals across the country are stepping up recycling efforts to reduce their environmental footprints. Long challenged by the complexities of medical waste disposal, compounded by limited options in recycling and waste management, hospitals are now finding innovative ways to recycle products that would previously end up in the incinerator or as trash in the landfill. These efforts come amid increased recognition of the harmful impact the mishandling of medical waste disposal can have on the environment, leading to serious public health consequences.

WellSpan York (Pa.) Hospital is partnering with a local business to turn plastic waste into building material. In 2022, the Costa Rica-based Center for Regenerative Design and Collaboration (CRDC) opened its first U.S. facility in York, where it converts plastic waste into RESIN8, a concrete and asphalt additive used in construction materials. While the hospital had a recycling program in place, the CRDC partnership has significantly increased the amount of waste that is eligible for recycling, accepting all types of plastic waste.

“We are committed to keeping our community healthy, and protecting the environment is an important part of that,” says Keith Noll, WellSpan Health’s chief administrative officer. “Many chronic health conditions have environmental factors that cause them, and we need to do our part to protect the environment and promote health.”

The recycling initiative both protects the environment and supports the community, Noll says. WellSpan uses a local minority-owned business to transport the waste to the recycling facility, and CRDC sells its finished product to local cement companies. The process will eventually come full circle, as the local cement companies will use their finished product in the hospital’s future expansion project. “We are excited that our waste can be turned into something useful, and we are continually looking for new products to recycle,” Noll says.

Operating rooms (ORs) create more than 30% of hospital waste and two-thirds of regulated medical waste, according to Practice Greenhealth. Yet few options are available to recycle disposable medical supplies from the OR. The University of Michigan Health in Ann Arbor, Mich., has found an innovative solution. Uncontaminated waste from the OR will be shipped to a facility in Ohio that converts plastic waste into feedstock that is used to make new plastic products.

During a six-month pilot project launched in October 2021, 2.5 million tons of medical plastics and Styrofoam were collected, including blue wrap, gowns and shoe coverings, and packaging. The success of the pilot program has clinicians throughout the health system eager for the program’s expansion, which starts this month.

“Our patient care providers are very enthusiastic about this,” says Chris Victory, senior mechanical engineer at the University of Michigan Health’s Michigan Medicine. “They are excited for us to roll this out across the system.”

AdventHealth Orlando (Fla.) is focusing part of its sustainability initiative on recycling unused items left behind in patient rooms post-discharge. Unopened supplies, including syringes and bandages, were previously discarded due to contamination concerns. Under a new recycling program, these items are placed in bins to undergo a multistep cleaning process.

Once the products are cleansed, they are sent back to the units for reuse and used during training or simulations or are shipped overseas to areas in dire need of medical supplies. In addition to keeping items out of the landfill, AdventHealth has realized significant savings by cutting back on purchases. And several countries have benefited from supply shipments that include the repurposed products through the AdventHealth Global Missions program.

“Health care is just starting to realize the impact it is making on the environment in terms of waste generation and carbon emissions,” Victory says. “The environmental impact of health care delivery is counterintuitive to the mission of most health care organizations, which is to promote health. We have to do what we can to minimize the impact.”