Why health care waste management

As the global health care system expands, reaching more people and offering more sophisticated treatments, a silent crisis is unfolding. When improperly treated, this growing amount of waste and disposable products drives an increase in air pollution, environmental pollution, unnecessary carbon emissions, and resource waste.

Waste hierarchy

Closed-loop disposal technologies are defined as those where waste can be retained for testing and reprocessed as necessary. Burning or landfilling releases most of the waste into the environment, and contaminants cannot be retrieved.

Through sustainable health care waste management, every hospital, large and small, rural and urban, can have a positive impact on the public and environmental health of its community.

When properly managed, health care waste should not cause any adverse impacts on human health or the environment. By sorting and reducing waste, hospitals not only avoid disposal costs and environmental hazards but also reduce the amount of raw materials, energy, and processing needed to replace the products they use.

Health facilities can cut waste, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions through:

  • Better purchasing: minimizing packaging, avoiding toxics, choosing reusable products, and buying recycled, 
  • Recycling, including anesthetic gases, 
  • Composting and biodigestion,
  • Minimizing waste transport with local treatment and disposal, 
  • Using steam-based waste disinfection methods like autoclaving and microwaving, and, 
  • Choosing final waste disposal technologies with care and avoiding incineration wherever possible.

Find out more about how health care waste can be treated and disposed of by type

Our work

Health Care Without Harm and the Health Environment and Climate Action Foundation (HECAF 360) joined forces with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (German Development Agency, GIZ) in a project to empower and support 13 hospitals in becoming environmentally resilient and set examples in sustainable health care waste management as per national standards.

Read more: Support for healthcare waste management in Kathmandu: setting milestones for sustainable practices.

From 2016 to 2020 Health Care Without Harm partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in a project funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) to disseminate autoclave-based waste treatment technologies and replace mercury-based medical devices in Ghana, Madagascar, Tanzania, and Zambia. The initiative built on previous successes and aimed at improving health care waste management by providing an array of policy documents, technology specifications, and training materials applicable to different facilities. Hospitals also implemented recycling programs and established biodigesters, manufactured in South Africa and designed specifically for the African scenario, to dispose of food and pathological waste.

The resources that resulted from this project are available in the knowledge repository of the Green Healthcare Waste site, which includes over 750 technical resources in 14 languages for projects with health care waste components in developing countries.

This initiative* aims at transforming the health care sector into a model for the sustainable production and consumption of textiles. The project includes researching, piloting, and scaling reusable medical textiles in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Europe to curb the plastic pandemic and promote the transition to sustainable forms of production. 

The project seeks to reduce and prevent the use of single-use medical textiles by switching to existing reusable alternatives, transforming the sector’s dependency and overreliance on plastic and toxic materials. Health Care Without Harm and its global network of partners will guide and support health care providers across different geographies in following the waste hierarchy (rethink/redesign, reduce, reuse, recycle) and target medical textiles, which are one of the top six plastic items used in health care and can account for up to 10% of total hospital plastic waste.

*This project is funded by the Norwegian Retailers' Environment Fund (NREF)

Learn more about our solutions for health care waste treatment