How Much Garbage Does It Take to Treat a Patient? 

At least 33 pounds, according to a conservative estimate. The medical industry, in fact, is one of the leading producers of solid waste and has been slow to recycle.

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There's also logistical hurdles to recycling. Ford said one nurse at her hospital wanted to recycle saline bottles, but the effort was scrapped. "There's not a team hired to take away the recycling," said Ford. "Our housekeeping already have their hands full — they're not ready to take on that task." One nurse, who did not want to be identified for fear of repercussions, said a local private doctor's office she used to work at did not even recycle bottles and cans, and when she tried to institute it — even volunteering to take the bottles and cans home to recycle herself — no one on staff participated and the idea was eventually dropped. "It's just not part of the culture," she said, referring to the non-recycling nature of her peers.

Ultimately, it seems an entire shift in hospital culture is what's needed. "I think they more instill in you about cross-contamination and infectious disease than the recycling," said Ford. "That's not really mentioned at all in orientations or upkeep. We have to take mandatory tests online all the time to keep up with OSHA standards, but it's never really based on recycling, it's based on safety concerns of the patient. We need the resources and money, then you can train the staff."

Indeed, money may be the biggest issue of all. Sorting recyclables means adding another job to the work of nurses and doctors, which may represent too much to a hospital's bottom line, said McGurk, who currently runs his own health-care consulting business, Systems Improvement Initiators Inc. "The hospital's thinking, 'Wait a minute, you're a highly-paid individual. Do we want to take the time to do that?'"

Following the East Coast medical waste washup in the late Eighties, the American Hospital Association and the US Environmental Protection Agency signed an agreement to reduce our country's medical waste — the efforts of which eventually became Practice Greenhealth. Among the Memorandum of Understanding's goals was to reduce overall medical waste by 33 percent in 2005 and 50 percent by 2010 — ambitious targets, to be sure. Though numbers of how much waste that actually represented were not mentioned, it's clear that those goals not only haven't been reached, but the trend has gone the opposite way: medical waste output in the United States has only increased.

In 1987, the EPA reported the per-bed per-day hospital waste generation to be 13 pounds. Some estimates put the number closer to 23 pounds per day per bed. Regardless, that's much lower than current numbers. Today, Practice Greenhealth estimates that amount to be 33 pounds per day per bed — and that's only including hospitals that have already reduced their waste.

Until more hospitals decide that the cost of not recycling is greater than the cost to do so, our country's medical waste will continue to pile up in our landfills — or wash up on our beaches (medical waste was recently found on a beach in New Jersey).

"The bigger issue is why don't we have a bigger incentive in recycling all this stuff," said Caesar Djavaherian. "I don't think I have a great solution other than avoiding hospitals."


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