U-M Health launches operating room plastic recycling program

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – As plastic pollution is increasing in our oceans, our food supply, and even our own bodies, we are all being encouraged to reduce the amount of plastic waste we create and recycle whenever possible.

One major source of plastic waste is hospitals, but recycling items in a hospital is not as simple as just remembering to put them in a bin.

Single-use plastic is everywhere in a hospital. It’s cheap, durable, and helps ensure that items that come in contact with patients are sterile.

It’s also incredibly wasteful.

Healthcare systems in the United States generate 5.9 million tons of waste per year. About 25% is plastic, and the vast majority is not recycled.

“It’s a big, big problem,” said Tony Denton, the chief environmental, social and governance officer for University of Michigan Health.

Operating rooms are a significant contributor, Denton explained.

“For us and other hospitals, about 35% of the waste comes from the OR setting,” Denton said. “A number of items that are used in the OR, different types of plastics, and different types of packaging are all based on some kind of plastic element. So it’s a huge area of focus for us.”

To try and reduce that waste, U of M Health launched a recycling pilot program at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and the Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital.

The OR staff has been trained to identify which items can be recycled, including the “blue wrap,” plastic packaging, pans, gowns, and shoe covers.

Those all go in a special purple bag. Items that can’t be recycled go in a clear trash bag.

Any items contaminated with blood or other fluids can’t be recycled, but most of the plastic in the OR is not contaminated.

While some changes are hard to make, this one was wholeheartedly embraced.

“The staff is passionate. They see it on a day-to-day basis, how much waste is generated,” said Christopher Victory, an engineer and sustainability lead at Michigan Medicine. “They want to be part of the solution. We’ve seen the news, we know climate change is an issue, you know, our mission here is to do no harm.”

Ashley Krause is the clinical nursing director at Michigan Medicine in the C.S. Mott Children’s operating rooms.

“It’s actually quite astonishing,” said Krause. “I think it was eye-opening for a lot of our staff, the amount that we now can recycle. They’ve made the process very easy, so it doesn’t really add any additional time or effort.”

U of M’s six-month pilot program collected 2.64 tons of medical plastic -- all of which would previously have ended up in a landfill. The reaction?

“Fantastic,” Denton said. “It’s a ‘Go Blue’ moment because we’re doing something that is meaningful.”

“Miracles happen here every day,” said Victory. “We do a lot of things, a lot of wonderful things, but we also know it’s a very waste-intensive environment. So, whatever we can do to divert plastics from the landfill, I think we’re excited about.”

They stress recycling, OR plastic doesn’t change anything regarding patient care.

“In fact, down the road, outside of the four walls of the hospital, we’re actually improving the health of the community that we serve,” Victory said.

This is just one component of the university’s efforts toward environmental sustainability and carbon neutrality.

Other commitments include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, energy conversation projects, and creating a university culture of sustainability.

U of M launched a permanent recycling program in the pilot hospitals this week and plans to expand it to other parts of the health system in phases.

“I expect it to inspire other hospitals,” Denton said. “We participate in an organization called Practice Greenhealth, which has 1,100 or so organizations in healthcare, all committed to environmental sustainability. One of our commitments to each other is to share lessons and best practices so that we can accelerate learning and doing.”

The take-home lesson --

“We all have a responsibility as a community to do whatever we can,” Denton said. “There’s way too much going on with extreme weather events. Whatever we can do, we should do to sustain our planet for current and future generations.”