Plastic surgery: the shocking waste in our health service

Health professionals show total disregard for the environment, from the abundance of single-use plastic to waste of heat, light and fuel

“I have often looked into the yellow bins in hospitals, where contaminated waste is collected to be incinerated at great expense, and found them full of newspapers and coffee cups deposited by staff.” Photograph: iStock

“I have often looked into the yellow bins in hospitals, where contaminated waste is collected to be incinerated at great expense, and found them full of newspapers and coffee cups deposited by staff.” Photograph: iStock

 

It is difficult to be a doctor and be “green”, or even slightly environmentally friendly. You would think health professionals would take a lead in environmental matters, but since the days when the late Prof Risteárd Mulcahy cut a lonely figure cycling to work for the sake of his health and nature, nothing seems to have changed.

It has become clear that it is wasteful, immoral and downright wrong to use a plastic implement, which will take thousands of years to decay, for a single use. We have seen the Blue Planet programmes, showing how the seas are choking under the onslaught of plastic and chemical pollution. The health of the planet is under attack, and as living organisms on the earth, humans are under attack as well.

You would think that those who have taken up the task of looking after the health of people would show concern and leadership, instead of blithely helping to add to the eight million tons of plastic a year which end up in our seas.

The presenters of gardening programmes on TV reuse plastics and urge us to buy reusable materials made from biodegradable sources. Restaurants stop serving drinking straws and disposable cutlery. Right-thinking people everywhere do their best but hospitals and medical providers seem to have no sense of the environment at all. While Croke Park sets a great example with its Green Ambassador Programme and multinationals construct environmentally friendly buildings, hospitals and the HSE lag behind.

I have never seen a hospital with a windmill, or even solar panels. I have seen hospitals where the lights are left on every night and all weekend in the office section when there is nobody there. Many a hospital ward has all the windows open and the radiators all on. Everything, down to the curtains, is disposable, but you never see a recycling bin. Some of this waste can be attributable to a need for sterility, but not all.

I have often looked into the yellow bins in hospitals, where contaminated waste is collected to be incinerated at great expense, and found them full of newspapers and coffee cups deposited by staff. There seems to be no ethos of “reduce reuse recycle”. In hospital canteens, just about everybody uses disposable cups and plates, even when the reusable ones are available.

Empty ambulances sit outside, their engines churning diesel into the air. Administrators drive between hospitals in big cars with four empty seats and a boot, overtaking couriers and taxis on the same journey carrying laboratory supplies.

Great irony

It is a great irony that when you work for the HSE you are actually paid more if you drive a big car as often and as far as you can. Milage is based on the size of your engine, so the bigger the car, the more you get, and it is tax-free. You would imagine the financial rewards should go to those with eco-friendly cars, and the managers would be rewarded for car-pooling, or taking public transport or even holding the meetings by Skype, if we are make any attempt at reducing our carbon emissions.

A doctor was always seen as the scientific expert in a town or village. If the doctor advised a course of action for themselves and their families, it set a powerful example, so you would imagine that healthcare professionals should be the ones setting the example, not the GAA

Yet hospitals in 2018 seem to have an environmental policy based on the mad scientists in old Bond movies. Nobody questions why all patients need a pristine, sterile, plastic urine sample which is often completely irrelevant, and their details entered in a huge paper chart instead of a computer.

In the GP’s office, more disposable materials are used in a morning’s work than you would find under the tree of a large family late on Christmas morning. Surely, if doctors complained, the active ingredients in inhalers could be sold as metal canisters and the plastic handpiece kept to take the refill, instead of chucking the whole thing in the bin every month.

During the second World War, there was an advertisement called “What did you do in the war Daddy?” I am haunted by the thought of those generations yet to come asking “what did you do as the planet was filling up on carbon, dooming us to a future of flood, drought, population displacement and famine? You concerned yourself with yet another drug to reduce the ill effects of overeating, that’s what you did.”

The HSE is great at getting in experts. I would suggest that it and the Medical Council get together and hire a few green experts, who would do something to stop the shocking waste in our healthcare service, and who would monitor and advise and see if all this stuff we use is necessary, and how we dispose of it.

For instance, the primary care centres have been a dreadful failure. There have been only a few built since their introduction in 2001. If GPs were given tax breaks and grants to move into passive, environmentally friendly, carbon-neutral buildings and were given electric vehicles, they would be extremely popular, and set a powerful example.

This idea is no more fanciful than giving huge subsidies to turf-burning power stations, which is done without question.

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