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If You Don’t Open It, You Can’t Throw It Away

By Jeffrey C. Wint, MD

As surgeons we all too well know how our patient’s individual health history and status affects results. Even a perfect operation, in the most technically skilled hands, is no match for the poor general health of a patient. Similarly, the environment plays a distinct role on our patient’s health. Lack of clean air, water, hygienic conditions in the home or community all can derail even the best intended health care plans.  All surgeons should be invested in conservation, taking care of the environment, not only in each of our own communities but for the planet as a whole. 

Recycling is part of our everyday life in 2019. It is rare that any town or city does not have a recycling program in place.  However, recycling is currently undergoing a “crisis” in the US. One reason is due to the problem of what to do with our recycled waste after it gets carted away. The NY Times reports that hundreds of US cities are scaling back their recycling programs.   What then to do in our professional lives if our recycling efforts seem to be thwarted beyond the trash pickup? One better solution may be to monitor refuse and disposables at home and at work to prevent the buildup of unneeded refuse of all types.

In my home, while we still dutifully fill our recycling bins, we have tried to limit the amount of recyclable refuse we create.  We have stopped using individual water bottles pre-filled with water, rid ourselves of plastic cups, utensils, and disposable plastic containers. When possible, my wife and I have gone back to reusable items.  Our office practice has long distributed logo water bottles for advertising and goodwill (and I like to encourage my post-op patients to stay hydrated) but the importance of these reusable bottles now seems elevated as we offer our patients a way to reduce trash in their own homes. For this reason, handing out these bottles has made me feel good. However, that iota of euphoria is short-lived, for I know that the   medical waste problem supplants any self-gratification I get from passing out a branded water bottle. 

Medical waste is a significant issue in the operating room, the office and the hospital.  Medical waste management is big business and growing, with estimates that it will be a worldwide 21-billion-dollar industry by 2024. The non-hazardous wastes produced, estimated by the world health organization to be 85 percent of all medical waste, even if it could ideally be recyclable, would just fuel the current recycling crisis we are seeing.  Waste disposal and medical waste is a complex problem. I know I cannot solve the global issues.  I cannot crunch numbers and decide how much carbon I’ll save by using a paper versus a disposable cloth or a washable cloth towel in the OR, but if I don’t open that towel then I negate the impact of that one item. Every surgeon can and should limit what we use when possible. There is a role for all of us in conservation in our professional lives and it starts with our ability to limit what we use.  Limiting garbage and avoiding using things to be thrown away seems to me to make the most sense.  Let’s all have a hard look at our packs, our drapes, our disposables, and what we open and don’t use, and see what we can do without.  It starts in the home, the office and the OR. If you don’t open it, you can’t throw it away

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