Health’s battalions wage war on waste

The ABC’s “bin guy” Craig Reucassel fronted a stimulating brainstorm on cutting hospital waste at the NSWNMA’s professional day.

Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital reduced its landfill waste by 600,000 kilograms a year after cutting out single-use plastics and introducing recycling initiatives, the ABC television presenter Craig Reucassel told delegates.

And Victoria’s public hospital sector annually produces the waste equivalent of 200,000 homes, he said.

Reucassel compared hospital waste to a recent visit he made to America’s midwest, where he didn’t see one item of reusable or washable cutlery in a week.

“In some ways hospitals are the midwest of Australia,” he said.

Since fronting the popular ABC program War On Waste, Reucassel said people regularly approach him in the street and say, “Aren’t you the bin guy?”

And health workers are more likely to stop him than any other kind of worker.

“Nurses and doctors come up to me far more than any other professional area. They say: ‘You’ve got to do a war on waste in hospitals.’”

While there are huge opportunities to improve hospital carbon footprints, Reucassel acknowledged reducing hospital waste is a complex problem.

Solutions can be blocked by hospital bureaucracy, and council and other waste disposal providers all have different collection rules. “You can’t make solutions that work for everyone.”

But Reucassel said this shouldn’t stop individuals and groups of workers making positive changes at the local level. He recommended implementing changes one step at a time, and what he calls “Flearning” – learning from failure.

He offered four steps to making real change: recognising the problem; building a team and tactics; finding solutions; and implementing solutions and changing habits.

Recognise the problem

Reucassel said: “Sometimes trying things on a smaller scale is the most important thing to do. A good place to start is by ‘figuring out what is really bugging me’.”

If the number of plastic water bottles being used each day is troubling you, begin with a campaign to replace them with tap water.

Build a team and tactics

“Health care is a very political environment,” Reucassel acknowledged. One of the most common things he hears from health workers wanting to introduce an environmental initiative is that there is “one person in the administration” who stopped it.

His advice is to start slowly and, rather than “go to the people who are least likely to accept change first, start with the people who are interested in it”.

Some people will not need to be convinced, but other others will be harder work. “Start by building a coalition in your hospital,” he suggests.

Find a solution

Finding solutions that try to solve all waste issues at once – eliminating plastic, reducing food waste, and cutting down on both costs and carbon emissions – can make dealing with environ-mental problems overwhelming.Reucassel recommends focusing on one issue at a time and thinking counter-intuitively and pragmatically. Some people wanted supermarkets such as Coles and Woolworths to replace plastic bags with paper bags, but while paper bags may be more biodegradable than plastic ones, producing them creates “more carbon emissions and uses a lot more water and a lot more material”.

It may not be a perfect solution, but by putting a price on plastic bags, Coles and Woollies have “massively reduced the amount of plastic they use”.

Implement solutions and change habits

“Implementing the change is the hard part, where most of the challenge will come,” he said. Trials in Denmark have found that nurses in patient wards, with a lot more face-to-face patient contact, were much more likely to give up on recycling than a nurse in an operating theatre where they could plan recycling before a procedure.

“Change needs to be made easy,” said Reucassel, noting that humans can be fundamentally lazy. When the War On Waste visited one school playground, they found that when three bins were placed directly next to each other, the rubbish was well sorted. “But in another part of the playground, where bins were five metres away from each other, it was pandemonium.”

Target procurement and tackle small things

A big impact on hospital waste can be made by targeting procurement practices. At Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra, Reucassel noted that 700,000 plastic kidney dishes have been replaced with dishes made from biodegradable sugarcane fibre.

One of the biggest ways to reduce a hospital’s carbon footprint is by reducing food waste. “Food waste going into landfill in many ways has a bigger impact than plastic going into landfill, because it creates methane, which is a massive greenhouse gas, 20 to 30 times more powerful than CO2,” Reucassel said.

“WHO says that 80 per cent of waste in health care is comparable to domestic waste, and a lot of that is not going to the right place.”

While it can be difficult to change habits and practices, nurses “have a lot of power” to make a really big impact, Reucassel said.

Tips to tackle hospital waste

While our campaigns for ratios in the public health sector and aged care are ongoing, there have still been significant achievements over the last 12 months resulting from our campaigning, says Brett Holmes:

  • Enrol patients to support initiatives: “Patients are often frustrated by waste too”.
  • One new graduate suggested saving out-of-date, or opened but unused, sterile stock and giving them to students and new grads to use to practice with.
  • If your hospital won’t recycle bottles, organise staff to collect empty bottles in wards and take them to Return and Earn points to raise money for the staff Christmas party.  
  • If you are having trouble getting council or a waste contractor to collect waste, use local media to tell your story and apply pressure.