Plastic's prevalence in practices

The behind-the-scenes of health practices can be hectic, impressive, and…full of plastic. When I moved from being in the position of a pet owner to being an employee at a veterinary clinic, I was taken aback by how much plastic the clinic went through every day. 

From the vaccine syringes to the autoclave single-instrument packets, and from the little medication bottles to the liters of cleaning products used, plastic is ubiquitous in veterinary practice. The excessive use of plastic, of course, is not really due to veterinarians’ fault.

Look closer at this photo and you’ll find that many surgical supplies are individually wrapped in plastic for sterility.

Plastic plays an important role in healthcare because it has many valuable attributes; it is relatively cheap, sterile, and disposable. “Healthcare facilities in the United States generate approximately 14,000 tons of waste per day, most of which is being disposed of in landfills or by incineration,” says the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council. “It is estimated that between 20 and 25 percent of that volume can be attributed to plastic products and packaging.” 

After decades of heavy plastic usage, it is understandable that there are vets who have used plastic their entire careers, and it’s pretty much impossible to imagine running a practice without the help of plastic. For example, IV tubing has been regularly disposed of since the 1960s, according to Health Debate, since they are so finicky to clean. In addition, imagine the dangers of using glass syringes when you’ve got a thrashing dog that hates getting shots! 

Honestly, this was what they used “back in the day”

While plastic is incredibly necessary in veterinary medicine, It’s quite ironic that we are trying to help animals, but inadvertently contributing to the waste and pollution of a planet that billions of other animals call home. There are many years before I will even think about having a practice of my own, but it’s never too early to start paying attention to plastic alternatives and ways to make veterinary practice a little more eco-friendly. 

Perusing the internet for eco-friendly veterinary practice tips is pretty difficult. Many of the results that pop up are related to energy-efficient equipment, sustainable building construction, and environmental safety checks. While all of these are important to consider when making veterinary practice more eco-friendly, they don’t relate to plastic use. I’ve been thinking about a couple ways for clinics to reduce their plastic footprint. If you have any ideas or are more informed on the feasibility of these tips, comment below!

  1. Making the switch to specifically biodegradable brands of nitrile gloves, such as Showa Green-Dex, that can accelerate the process with organic additives. Unfortunately, these gloves can only degrade in biologically active landfills, so extra sorting arrangements might have to be made.
  1. Starting a take-back program by encouraging clients to bring back their pets’ medication bottles for a lower medication price or clinic credit. Pill bottles don’t cost very much, but vet clinics dish out tens of them per day and clients don’t always recycle. People are pretty reward driven even if the reward is not significant. This may also get them in a habit of bringing recyclables to a recycling center, or make them more open to utilizing other take-back programs. 
  1. Avoid buying anything that’s plastic in the first place. Chairs, fake plants, storage boxes, dog and cat bowls, towels, and treat jars can all be made of plastic. Buying second-hand or receiving donated items may not result in a sleek, aesthetic clinic, but most clients don’t really see the back end of the facility anyways. Bonus points if we can avoid fabrics made out of polyester, since polyester is not biodegradable, has a high carbon and water footprint, and may release microplastics into the environment. 
  1. Requesting the eco-friendly shipping option on orders, ordering in bulk, or sending out shipments in eco-friendly materials. Hospitals mostly order basic supplies in bulk anyways because they go through them so quickly. But we’ve all seen how small items come in unnecessarily large packaging, with plastic air bags that maintain padding. In addition, magazines often come wrapped in plastic. Selecting magazines that come in biodegradable plastic or no plastic would be helpful in the long run, especially if clinics are subscribed to several monthly magazines. If some magazines are too dear to give up, emailing their representatives about looking into an eco-friendly alternative would also help put an environmental cause on their radar!
  1. Sourcing items from companies that take back used containers. There are companies like Loop that are hoping to reuse empty containers by bringing them back to parent companies. There is also a company called TerraCycle that reuses, upcycles, or recycles waste in various programs to reduce the amount of trash going to the landfill or incinerator.     

Of course, many of the plastic issues come from the manufacturers themselves. I’m not really sure what happens to all the little blood test and fecal sample tubes after they’re run at the Idexx labs. Are they cleaned and recycled, or simply thrown out? Can companies make syringes and IV bags out of biodegradable plastic without compromising the sterility of their contents? 

Biodegradable plastic is still a rarity and cannot degrade in just any environment. Even if these everyday items were made out of biodegradable plastic, they can contain residual vaccines and chemicals that may make them ineligible for industrial composting. 

While plastic can be recycled, most of these things aren’t recycled (properly)

It will be pretty difficult for the animal health community to move away from plastic waste when companies continue to make affordable, plastic products. Even if companies are breaking ground with finding alternatives, it’ll require extensive testing and bureaucracy to ensure that these products are safe and legal in practice. I know that the human healthcare system goes through even more plastic; this is an issue that does not only apply to the veterinary community. 

I try to limit my own plastic use at home, but I’m obviously not going to refuse a service to animals simply because I want to forgo plastic in my life. For now, plastic doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in health practices, but we should encourage more innovation in creating plastic alternatives and be more open to changing up our old habits of using plastic when possible.

Sources: Smithsonian Magazine: Do ‘Biodegradable’ Plastic Bags Actually Degrade?, PBS: How biodegradable plastic bags don’t live up to their name, Globus Group, Practice Greenhealth, National Geographic: Can medical care exist without plastic?, Medium: The paradox of plastic in healthcare, HPRC: Circularity for healthcare plastics, Technology Review: Why do we send out magazines wrapped in plastic, CDC

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