A few years ago, researchers at Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh decided to look at the environmental impact of performing the second most common major surgery for women in the U.S. and Canada: a hysterectomy.
The study involved 62 surgeries. Immediately following each one, researchers went into the OR and carefully collected, sorted, labelled and weighed the solid waste and recycling.
On average, a single abdominal hysterectomy generated 9.2 kilograms of waste, about half of which came from gloves, thin film packaging, wrappers, hard plastic trays and other plastics.
Syringes, IV tubing, saline bags, plastic-wrapped drugs, catheters — hospitals couldn’t function without plastics. While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pledge to ban single-use plastics as early as 2021 may have noble intentions, not all plastics are evil, experts say.
“It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of plastics in modern society,” Dr. Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society wrote recently in the Montreal Gazette. Medical equipment, cars, airplanes, computers and communication systems “all rely on a variety of plastics.”
“Just think what our world would be like if we didn’t have garbage bags,” he said in an interview. “It’s not a frivolous use — it’s absolutely necessary for sanitation.“
Still, 50 years after Ben Braddock, the floundering college graduate played by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, was told, “Plastics! The future is plastics!” the material has attracted the ire of environmentalists.
ust think what our world would be like if we didn’t have garbage bags
The plastics industry was thriving circa The Graduate’s release in 1967. “We were gyrating with hula hoops, going to Tupperware parties, listening to vinyl records, playing with plastic toys and drinking from plastic cups through plastic straws. And we were paying for it all with plastic,” Schwarcz wrote. Today, “zero plastic” is the new zero carbs.
The hospital sector, for its part, is taking steps to green operating rooms and other patient care areas. Up to 85 per cent of hospital garbage is nonhazardous solid waste, according to an article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Major contributors are plastic packaging (many surgical products are double-wrapped) and blue sterile wrap used to cover surgical instruments.
In Quebec hospitals, the focus is on sorting plastics and sending them to recyclers. (Blue sterile wrap, for example, can be recycled into curbside blue boxes.) Several years ago, Toronto’s University Health Network switched to reusable sharps containers, which are used to collect used needles.
But OR’s pose a special challenge because of the need for absolute sterility.
Hospitals began shifting more than a decade ago from sterilized, reusable products to plastic, single-use ones.
“The shift has been done and, while it’s not impossible, it’s difficult to undo,” said Jérome Ribesse, director general of Synergie Santé Environnement and a member of the board of the Canadian Coalition for Green Health Care.
Still, disposable plastic items in the health sector aren’t a major concern, said Vito Buonsante, plastics program manager at Environmental Defence. The plastics they would like to see tackled first under any Liberal scheme include unnecessary ones, like plastic cutlery, plates and take out containers.
While straws have become an emotional symbol for environmentalists, they account for virtually nothing, in terms of weight, in total plastic waste. Instead, they are an example of the psychology at play in the war on plastic, said neuroscientist Dean Burnett, author of The Happy Brain.
“Climate change is now a lot more real for more people than ever,” Burnett said. While plastic pollution and climate change aren’t one and the same, “to most, it falls under the umbrella of ‘environmental harm,’ so it all gets lumped together,” he said.
“The problem is, being aware that something needs to be done about the environment, and actually doing something about the environment is a big leap,” Burnett said. “They have all the worry of climate change, and none of the control.”
The human brain has trouble processing that kind of dissonance. It feels stressed and anxious. Giving up plastic straws helps people feel they’re making a tangible difference, Burnett said. “That it might be negligible overall is not really the issue, it’s the feeling of making a difference, of being able to affect outcomes — that is the main thing.
From a political perspective, straws are similarly easy targets, he said, “something that could be removed without much upheaval, for maximum political gain.”
“The disposable plastic furore isn’t bad, per se,” Burnett said. But some things will always need a durable, flexible and sterile material to function properly. “Syringes, IV stuff. Could you make plastic alternatives that have similar properties but are more biodegradable? Maybe.”
Schwarcz said the backlash against all things plastic is not an all-or-none situation.
“It never is in science. You have to evaluate each of these uses on their own merit.” There would be no flat-screen TVs, no computers without plastic. Water pipes are made of plastic. “This business of having a plastic-free world, it’s just nonsense.”