Agents of change: reducing landfill and plastic pollution
We’ve all heard about the swirling masses of plastic pollution in our oceans and growing mountains of landfill that are leaching chemicals, contributing to global warming and threatening the health of humans and other species.
In 2017–18 Victorian public health services generated over 35,000 tonnes of solid waste, of which just over 7550 tonnes was recycled with disposal costs at close to $17 million.
The Department of Health and Human Services and Sustainability Victoria are undertaking a two-year project exploring how waste can be reduced in the public healthcare system.
Meanwhile, nurses and midwives are quietly taking matters into their own hands.
At the sixth ANMF Health and Environmental Sustainability Conference on 2 May, nurses and midwives spoke of how inspired they had been by hearing from colleagues at previous conferences. This year, another panel of nurses shared their experiences of advocating for greater sustainability in their workplace.
Perioperative clinical nurse specialist, South West Healthcare, Warrnambool
Innovation – the fabric of the future
Susan grew up in Warrnambool surrounded by nature and with parents who taught her to ‘waste not, want not’.
But during her career as a perioperative nurse, Susan has seen a trend away from sterilization of instruments and other surgery-related materials to plastic-wrapping.
‘We have an overwhelming mountain of rubbish before we even start a case,’ she said.
In 2016, Susan attended the ANMF (Vic Branch) Health and Environmental Sustainability Conference for the first time and the words of our environmental officer Ros Morgan struck home:
‘Start where you are, use what you can and do what you can, because every change makes a difference.’ She made a personal pledge to reduce the number of blue surgical towels going to landfill.
First Susan found out how many towels the hospital used: in 2016 South West Healthcare used 12,500 towels, increasing to 15,500 in 2018.
Susan spoke with her nurse unit manager, the hospital’s infection control officer and sustainability officer about collecting the towels. She sourced a skip, and theatre nurses began setting the towels aside before gowning and gloving. A sewing station was set up in the town and 203 bags were created from the recycled towels – Boomerang Bags was born.
Bag kits containing towels and instructions were provided to primary schools. ‘They all loved knowing the story of where their bag came from, how simple they were to make and how much potential landfill could be diverted,’ Susan said.
Many Boomerang Bags are donated to charities and sold to raise funds for the hospital. Since 2018, 4000 towels have been collected to make Boomerang Bags, which also replace plastic bags and prevent them from entering the ecosystem.
Haemotology and oncology nurse at St Vincent’s Hospital Cancer Centre
Reducing waste at St Vincent’s Chemo Day Unit
Emily was inspired to start her own sustainability initiative when she saw another nurse present at a previous Health and Environmental Sustainability Conference.
At the time nothing was being recycled in Emily’s area. All waste was going to landfill and clinical waste bins.
Emily contacted environmental services, who told her that recycling would be rolled out across the hospital. After a few months had gone by, Emily’s team decided to take action themselves.
They put recycling bins in place and created posters. Every week they would take turns to take soft plastics to the supermarket and cut off PVC ports for recycling.
The team bought reusable cups and encouraged patients and staff to use these rather than plastic cups. They started a hospital green team using Yammer, a social networking platform for organisations.
‘Most (green team members) are executives and staff from departments I wouldn’t normally have any contact with,’ Emily said. After a slow beginning, conversations about sustainability initiatives such as replacing ‘disposable’ plates and utensils at meetings and events have begun percolating on the platform.
Clinical nurse specialist, operating theatre, West Gippsland Hospital, Warragul
Soft plastics: the unicorn of hospital recycling
Operating theatres produce about 70 per cent of a hospital’s waste making this is an area to concentrate sustainability effort for potential high impact.
Natalie set out with a goal of diverting as much waste from landfill and clinical waste as possible.
Natalie said she was glad to hear that the Department of Health and Human Services was producing clear clinical waste guidelines.
Natalie wanted to start recycling soft plastics working with the hospital’s current waste contractor rather than initiate a new relationship with another contractor. The contractor suggested a soft plastics recycling service for the hospital could be trialled as they were concerned about the collection being contaminated.
One of the barriers for Natalie is China’s new recycled material import restrictions, with contamination thresholds of 0.5 per cent on paper and plastics. The contractor has asked that only clear plastics be recycled to reduce the chance of the collection being contaminated.
After Natalie put forward a business case to management for recycling anaesthetic drug trays, they are now sterilised and re-used.
Clinical nurse specialist, Dandenong Dialysis Unit, Monash Health
Waste reduction initiatives in haemodialysis: wildlife welfare and beyond
After the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, a wildlife volunteer approached Wendi requesting materials to use in caring for injured animals.
In 2016, the Dandenong Dialysis Unit decided to improve sustainable practices and started donating to AWARE Wildlife Rescue, which cares for orphaned animals.
Each dialysis patient receives a dressing pack which includes blue towels, aprons and gauze, and patients transported to the unit arrive with disposable blankets, doonas, sheets and pillows.
Refugees participating in a refugee volunteer program gather, fold and pack these materials for recycling to AWARE Wildlife Rescue.
AWARE uses these recycled materials for cage linings, wound dressings for animals’ injuries and for swaddling of baby animals to minimize contact with human hands. Between five and 10 kilograms of material per week are being recycled.
Registered nurse and green team leader, Maroondah Hospital
Plastic straws suck. My journey, trying to ban them in a major Melbourne hospital
Last year Vivien embarked on a mission to try to get plastic straws replaced at Alfred Hospital, where she was employed at the time. First, she spoke to her nurse unit manager, who was on the hospital’s green team and fully supportive. Vivien engaged with the rest of the green team and staff, promoting a message of ‘No straw unless necessary’, and supplying a small quantity of paper straws until they could be procured by the hospital.
Across Alfred Hospital venues, 163,750 plastic straws were used in 2017 or about 448 per day.
Vivien wrote to the chief executive officer in May 2018 asking for a ban on plastic straws to be effective on World Environment Day, 1 June.
Despite a positive response, when the hospital announced its sustainability plan on World Environment Day, it did not include a ban on plastic straws. Vivien met with the procurement and supply officer about purchasing paper straws, but they arrived — individually wrapped in plastic.
When Vivien resigned from Alfred Health a few months later plastic straws were still in use. However Vivien said Alfred Health’s environment sustainability officer had told her a trial of a plastic-straw ban has been conducted within the intensive care unit.