It was disappointing to learn that in England, the NHS used 600 million disposable cups in the last five years. The earth is not ours to use and abuse – we hold it in trust for future generations and we must limit our impact on the planet.
It takes between 30 and 450 years for plastic-lined, polystyrene and plastic cups to decompose. It takes energy to produce disposable materials, energy to transport them and energy to remove them.
It’s such a waste and the NHS could lead the way in being as ecologically friendly as possible. We have so many areas where we could improve.
The NHS has a sustainability strategy, however, sustainability is about much more than reducing a carbon footprint. Sustainability is about considering the whole life cycle of a product and about reducing use, recycling whenever possible and working with manufacturers to develop products that are biodegradable.
It is possible to make containers, which hold liquid that are completely biodegradable and cost only one or two pence. Imagine the impact the NHS could make if every bottle of IV fluid was biodegradable.
It is possible to make biodegradable plastic from sugar and carbon dioxide. This breaks down when exposed to soil. Imagine the difference using this type of plastic would make to the impact of plastics on our world.
As our population grows and ages – and healthcare becomes more sophisticated – the environmental impact of the NHS is set to grow unless we change our ways.
At a policy level, NHS England could introduce incentives for trusts to reduce waste and increase recycling; and to purchase supplies produced locally rather than have them imported from across the world.
The amount of carbon dioxide from shipping has increased significantly, with ships now producing as many emissions as a country the size of Germany. These emissions are now to be regulated and reduced.
On a national level, the NHS can do so much more. The NHS has a huge budget that means they have the power to change things for the better. They could wield that wisely by working out environmental specifications for products that we purchase, and giving “preferred provider” or “eco friendly” badges to suppliers who produce goods with a low environmental impact.
If you look at just one product, disposable incontinence pads, these have a huge impact on the environment. Some have bleached pulp (so that the pad is white rather than cream).
This process is unnecessary and has environmental costs. It takes 500 years for an incontinence pad to biodegrade in landfill. The NHS could encourage manufacturers to produce biodegradable incontinence pads and use recycling plants.
On an individual level, we can influence our employers to use cleaner, greener solutions and reduce our personal waste by using things such as reusable water bottles. It begins with a mug rather than a plastic cup and ends with a cleaner, greener planet.
It would be wonderful if we could leave our children a better world than the one we inherited, but if we are to achieve that – we need to act now.
Linda Nazarko is nurse consultant in physical health care at West London Mental Health NHS Trust