Nursing Garbage

It’s 10:00 on a Tuesday morning at the hospital I am currently working at. I’m emptying my first full size bag of garbage from the two patients residing in the same room. Inside the bag are disposable gowns, cereal boxes, milk cartons, coffee cups, trays, plastic utensils, a hard plastic catheter bag, plastic iv tubing, plastic med cups, hair nets, face masks and shields, shoe covers, adult diapers and disposable wipes. There are temperature probes, disposable blood pressure cuffs, and even a hospital gown that is covered in feces that a nurse felt was too dirty to wash so it went straight into the trash. Covid obviously affects the amount of disposable items by a very large percentage, but a lot of these items are no stranger to a garbage can inside hospital walls. 

I have been a nurse for over 12 years and I will fully admit to terrible practices from an environmental standpoint during most of my career. Before educating myself, taking time to think about things individually and researching disposal practices (which change city to city) I just ruthlessly threw things away without thinking twice about it. 

Many of the things I threw in the garbage 12 years ago are fully intact in a landfill today. Many things I threw in the garbage 12 years ago will be fully intact for my entire lifetime. 

Obviously there are things we have to dispose of due to safety, cleanliness and general basic practice. I realize there are severe precautions that need to be taken, especially now more than ever, but I also realize there are MANY things we can do to lessen the amount of waste put into landfills. 

I am a travel nurse. I work in many different hospitals all over Canada and I can tell you that I have yet to find a hospital that employs someone that focuses on environmental impact of the hospital and proper recycling techniques. One of the first things I ask when I am in a new hospital, is how their garbage and recycling is processed and I’m usually met with blank stares. 

I am not writing this to attack any one place. I am writing this to make people more aware of what I feel is a HUGE issue, that no one seems to care about. I feel isolated being concerned about this and often am left stunned questioning why no one else seems to inquire about waste practices and areas of improvement. 

I am currently working at a hospital which has a single recycling bin on each unit. I work on a unit with 35 beds. It’s got very long hallways and in the middle is a pantry. Outside of the pantry sits the single recycling bin. It’s often filled with items that don’t belong here, gloves, med cups, paper towels. The garbage bin is right beside it. The effort required to place gloves in the garbage instead of the only designated recycling bin is so minimal, a worm could figure it out. I often see pop cans and plastic water bottles (what all patients are using during covid) in garbage cans because no one has time and nobody wants to walk extra steps to the recycling bin. 

Covid requires exponential increases in PPE for each patient. This means exponential increases of waste. Often there are both reusable gowns and disposable plastic gowns outside of patient rooms. The reusable gowns get put in a bin and washed and used again. These are safe to use and environmentally friendly, an amazing option, but I continuously see nurses reaching for the disposable gowns which are not only plastic but come in a plastic bag as well. I’ve asked different nurses why they prefer the plastic gowns as opposed to the reusable ones and their responses include: “I’m too lazy to put the reusable ones in the holder”, “the reusable ones have a tie at the back, it’s extra work”, “The disposable gowns are easier to take off”. I was told that nurses are encouraged to use the reusable gowns but I’m not sure who’s encouraging this and haven’t seen any signage or emails to reflect this. 

I’ll be the first to admit that especially in these times, cutting down waste is very difficult, but it is not impossible. There are tiny practices we can include in our day to help reduce the overall footprint. Before you all start rolling your eyes and saying “your Vancouver is showing”, please take into consideration what is going on. I know you can agree with me that we do NOT consider environmental repercussions during a shift. Nurses this list is for you. 

  • Use paper med cups instead of plastic when able to (I know the plastic ones are nicer and hold their shape better but even something this small can help!)
  • Use washcloths and towels for care and brief changes when available
  • Take only what you need into a room (I know this is HARD for nurses, not really sure why but I know this is a nurse thing…I’m super guilty of this one)
  • Try to think about cost. In the states every single pill, every wipe, dressing supply, linen, food item that goes into a room is scanned and billed to the patient. Yes we have free health care but who knows what effect the covid crisis will have on government debt and how it will affect us in the future. BE MINDFUL of what you are using. If a patient needs a bandaid, get a bandaid, don’t just grab a mepilex border because you found it first in the stock room before the bandaid. 
  • Don’t use temperature probe covers… KIDDING!!! Just wanted to see if you were still reading! 🙂 
  • Inquire about recycling practices in your city/hospital, ask if the hard plastic that IV bags come in can be recycled separately. Be a trailblazer! Ask at huddle if certain practices can be put into place
  • Think about the future. We’re the ones who are going to be in hospitals in 30-40 years from now. Will things be so bad that we will have shortages of everything? 
  • BE MINDFUL. Think about things before you do them. Ask yourself if there is something you can use instead that is more environmentally friendly. Put the right things in the right disposals. 
  • If linen is covered in something disgusting, don’t throw it in the garbage. The linens are washed in the hottest water and cleaned to the NINES. 
  •  Put your dang covid water bottles in the recycling! 
  • Use fabric head coverings instead of hair nets

I know things are busy and chaotic and sometimes we don’t even know which way is up but I’m hoping that by reading this you can make conscious choices as you go about your day. I used to have choice words for people like me who want to encourage change and preach about recycling and the environment so I get it, but I just want to be a bug in your ear. You have nice ears 🙂

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