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Moving to plastic-free healthcare in India

Single-use plastic from healthcare is a concerning problem and no doubt cannot be solved overnight. We do have eco-friendly alternatives available but the reality is those are not cost-effective.

With a sharp increase in single-use items in recent decades, plastic has become omnipresent in the healthcare industry. Given the fact there is an aspect of plastic in healthcare that is proving to have the most detrimental impacts on the environment, medicinal plastic disposables and single-use plastics are extremely useful and even lifesaving in healthcare. Now that countries, including India, are pushing legislation to ban the use of single-use plastics in the wake of the rising heat of the international global climate, it becomes a matter of discussion whether medical care can exist without single-use plastic, especially in a middle-income country like India where, unlike in the Western countries, in majority of the cases, healthcare expenses are borne by the patient himself.

In any hospital or medical facility, hygiene and infection control remain the top priority. By limiting the transmission of microbes and infectious diseases, single-use plastics play a crucial part in the medical sector. When handling biological fluids, disposable medical tools are essential. These include syringes, drug tests, bandages, and gloves, all of which are mostly made of plastic. Plastic pipettes, vials, and sample bags are also frequently used in medical research. Single-use plastics are perfect for these applications because many of these devices cannot be reused due to the possibility of cross-contamination. Single-use plastics are recommended in addition to their durability, strength, and safety, due to their cost-effectiveness. It is economically viable to use products created from the cheapest materials available in a sector where products are regularly discarded.

Plastics are used in hospitals in a range of products, including surgical instruments and disposable plastic syringes. Single-use plastics were seen as a desirable choice in the healthcare industry since they make it possible to maintain a sterile environment and any infectious plastic may be disposed of with ease. However, the sheer quantity of single-use plastics used in hospitals is worrying. According to the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), hospitals account for approximately 5 million tons of waste and 4.4 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, making this a global problem. For this reason, it is critical that hospitals embrace measures that support single-use plastic reduction, moving forward.

The US healthcare industry alone produces 3500 tons of waste each day, or more than 25 percent of all waste produced on a daily basis. The treatment of the material after use is one of the difficulties in handling plastic waste in the healthcare industry. Due to the risk of infection and cross-contamination, it is currently not practical to recycle single-use medical plastics; for medical devices, cremation is usually chosen. In addition, some plastic items cannot be recycled, using conventional techniques, due to their chemical makeup. There are fewer materials that can be employed in the medical industry due to strict sterility safety regulations. While other options have been suggested, like glass and stainless steel, these pose problems with decontamination and transportation. These alternative materials also have far greater manufacturing costs, which may raise the price of both commercial and public healthcare.

The market for medical plastics in India is estimated at ₹1560 crore in 2021 and is projected to develop at a CAGR of 15.2 percent from 2021 to 2030. The demand for medical plastics in the country is anticipated to be positively impacted by increased healthcare spending, increasing government support to strengthen the healthcare sector, and an increase in positive coronavirus cases in the nation.

Additionally, one-time-use plastics are used extensively by hospitals and clinicians in the form of tubes, syringes, urine bags, catheters, injections, IV bags, and blood bags. In India, each hospital bed produces 2 kg of medical waste each day. The majority of hospital trash, measured in volume, is made of plastic. A ban on single-use medical plastic will greatly reduce the nation’s overall plastic waste production, improving the environment. However, it would be utterly unfeasible for the Indian healthcare system to switch to alternatives as it would, subsequently, lead to healthcare services becoming more expensive.

Sustainability policies can significantly affect the reduction of single-use plastics at the national level, within health boards, and in individual clinics and institutions. The healthcare system operates more sustainably when single-use plastic is used less. Utilizing safe and practical substitutes for single-use plastics is one action that business professionals may take. If at all possible, choose reusable things.

Tools like sterilizing wraps and surgical basins can be reused by medical professionals. And doing so can cut several tons of garbage from a clinic or hospital each year. Some hospitals are experimenting with reusable sterilizing containers that practitioners can clean similarly to the equipment they contain in place of blue wrap, a typical polypropylene sheeting.

An alternative to the often used single-use sterilizing pouches is the FDA-approved EnviroPouch. Additionally, various healthcare and medical equipment manufacturers have created a number of green medical items, including a skin stapler constructed out of materials derived from plants and other organic materials, which are biodegradable, eco-friendly, and non-toxic.

With the help of these products, the amount of energy needed in manufacturing is reduced by 67 percent. Additionally, for every 10,000 skin staplers used, it reduces more than 225 kg of plastic waste. A biodegradable needle counter box made of plant materials has also been developed, deploying which, around 93 percent of the plastic waste, connected with a product used in almost every surgical surgery, is eliminated.

In the medical industry, single-use polymers that are less harmful to the environment are already an option for several applications. For instance, Polycare provides trash bags with reduced plastic usage for various waste streams as well as a variety of goods that are completely compostable and produced from plant starches derived from sustainable feedstocks. The producer can use this completely compostable material to create products like aprons, patient carrier bags, diaper bags, and caddy liners for food waste.

For a variety of popular applications, practitioners should immediately explore more environmentally friendly substitutes for single-use plastics, while decision-makers in the medical industry may also lessen the use of single-use plastic by fostering a culture of responsibility among personnel.

Of course, there are situations where disposable PPE and a variety of additional goods are necessary. However, there are occasions when it is simple for workers to use these goods excessively. All healthcare institutions may achieve their environmental and sustainability goals with the support of good education and training.

Even if there are techniques to cut back on single-use plastic in hospitals, it is unclear that the industry will ever be able to completely do away with it. This implies that we would not merely need to identify alternatives going forward.

We must also consider how to lessen the effects of necessary plastic trash. Despite the fact that many clinics and hospitals are moving in the right direction, the biohazard element prevents them from ever being really zero-waste. Many hospitals used to merely mix all the various waste streams together in the past. They gathered and burned rubbish in incinerators, ranging from operating room waste to trash from the reception area. Numerous developing nations continue to employ this standard technique.

However, a major source of dioxin, mercury, lead, and other hazardous pollutants is the cremation of medical waste. This choice poses a serious threat to human health as well as the environment. Many governments, public health groups, international organizations, and multinational corporations nevertheless advocate for incineration technology as solution for waste management despite these risks.

Researchers are looking for solutions to lessen the environmental impact of single-use plastics as demand on the healthcare sector increases. One option is to progressively stop using PVC, one of the plastics that causes the most environmental harm, in the medical sector.

Researchers are looking for solutions to lessen the environmental impact of single-use plastics as demand on the healthcare sector increases. One option is to progressively stop using PVC, one of the plastics that causes the most environmental harm, in the medical sector.

According to studies, polyolefin-based elastomers perform better in terms of the amount of energy consumed in production and the emissions generated after burning. Therefore, the suggested remedy is to shift the types of plastic used rather than completely giving up on them. With this approach, the advantages of single-use medical plastics are maintained while the negative environmental effects of end-of-life care are reduced.

Each phase of the plastic life cycle poses a threat to human health, similar to how it affects the environment. During the extraction, refinement, and manufacture of raw resources, toxic compounds are employed and discharged. These compounds have a detrimental effect on the immunological, neurological, and reproductive systems in addition to producing some types of cancer. Communities that are often impoverished and close to manufacturing and processing facilities are more vulnerable to the health dangers. Humans may come into contact with any of the dangerous compounds utilized as plastic additives during use. Toxic chemicals like lead, mercury, dioxins, furans, and ash are discharged into the air, water, and soil when plastic is burned after its useful life. Microplastic is created when plastic is left in the environment (landfill, soil, waterways) which eventually enters into the ecosystem, making way into our bodies.

Single-use plastic from healthcare is a concerning problem and no doubt cannot be solved overnight. We do have eco-friendly alternatives available but the reality is those are not cost-effective. Increasing healthcare costs would add to the woes of an already oberburdened health system. It may be prudent for the authorities to phase out plastics over a couple of years, rather than going for a complete ban, and provide a waiver to the healthcare sector from single-use plastic ban. And create awareness among the hospitals and healthcare professionals to strive to avoid and minimize the negative health and environmental impacts of the healthcare sector’s operations by minimizing unnecessary plastic use and seek safer and sustainable alternatives.

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