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Waging war on waste

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Most people nowadays are aware of climate change and the need for recycling, but that does not mean everyone is doing something about it.

Businesses and organisations can be among the worst culprits and, as Europe's biggest employer, the NHS has the potential to make a huge contribution to the cause.

However, amid targets, budget cuts and intense workloads, healthcare staff would be forgiven for not making recycling a priority.

This was something Michele Morris, associate director for Nursing Division 1 at University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, quickly realised when she became co-lead of the trust's Waste Minimisation Programme 'Think Before You Bin'. The programme has involved representatives from departments such as procurement and hotel services joining together to form a waste minimisation group.

'We'd had a lot of presentations about turning off lights and PCs but, for me, the big thing was how we dispose of waste,' says Michelle. 'Although the cost implications are huge, my main motivation was the environment. I realised that, in the grand scheme of nurses' everyday working lives, waste reduction is not their number one thought - they are focused on clinical matters. It was about changing a culture.'

Although UHB was already one of the most environmentally friendly trusts in the UK, currently recycling 21% of its commercial waste, Michele knew there was much room for improvement - for example, yellow clinical bins by sinks were often being filled predominantly with paper towels. 'Until I started working with the group I had assumed that 90% of waste produced by wards was clinical. I was stunned to learn that it is more like 10%,' she admits.

She was acutely aware that nurses, as the biggest staff presence in clinical environments where there is a high potential for waste, were going to be crucial to the success of any waste minimisation programme.

'I started talking with the matrons. If I hadn't personally visited the wards and had discussions and don't think it would have changed,' explains Michele. 'I physically changed over the bags myself and gave handouts on why we were doing it. We also put a sticker on every bin.'

To further help the segregation of waste, all bins were colour-coded: yellow for clinical waste, blue for confidential waste and clear for general waste. Posters were also put up around the trust to alert everyone to the changes.

The cost implications of staff making even small changes are huge. Clinical waste is 10% more expensive to process than general waste - and confidential waste is disposed of for free. 'There have been lots of positives,' Michele says. 'The amount of confidential waste has grown enormously.'

As well as improving patient confidentiality, she insists patient care is also positively impacted indirectly. 'In the present climate, waste minimisation is a really easy way to save money without compromising patient care or having to make other changes,' she points out.

A recent visit by the Environmental Agency confirmed the scheme's success - the agency gave the trust 10/10 for its recycling efforts. The visit also gave Michele an opportunity to suggest other changes to those with the influence to make large-scale changes. 'I told them that I couldn't recycle the outer packaging of theatre packs because what it was made of. They took this on board, so there are knock-on effects.

'It was an enormous effort personally and has taken a long time but it has been worth every minute. I think the effects will be felt far into the future.'

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