February 2020

Plastic, Catalyst For Climate Change

Back in the 1950’s, a Belgian-American scientist living in New York discovered that mixing phenol and formaldehyde created a durable synthetic polymer, later called plastic.

The creation was revolutionary, and since then seven types of plastic exist.

The trouble is, the formula is so durable, it hasn’t got the ability to go away. A global analysis of all mass-produced plastics up until 2015, shows the continuation of plastic production has totaled 9 billion tons, 7 billion heading straight to a mausoleum called landfill. The rest slides its way into the ocean, engulfing marine-life and the fish you order, to eat a healthy meal.

The West once had a back-up plan for plastic, with China accepting around 30 million tons of waste each year, from around the world. Australia passed on 1.25 million tons, annually. Plastics continued to thrive and you could send it far away for someone else to deal with its disposal. Then the announcement in January 2018 came from China, saying they didn’t want everyone’s rubbish anymore. Inundated with contaminated, poorly sorted and excessive garbage, China issued the wake-up call we all needed, their National Sword Policy.

I work in operating theatres and feel uncomfortable about the excessive amounts of single-use plastic we use, encouraged by medical companies for ‘safe patient care’. The unsustainable forms of plastic found in theatres are rapidly phasing out the re-usable cottons and metal we once washed and re-used. Now, the trend has moved towards everything becoming single-use, despite there being no technology for it to be recycled. Instead it becomes a catalyst for climate change due to the toxic pollution it creates when incinerated or dumped in landfill.

There are small groups within hospitals who are trying to ‘waste less and recycle more’, but recycling isn’t the golden answer, unless it is using glass. Glass can be recycled forever due to its structure of never wearing out as a raw material. But plastic is like a dirty plague. Plastic bags, for instance, can’t be recycled. Yet plastic bags are rampant throughout operating theatres. They are in ready-made packs despite having no use, except to keep some disposable equipment contained within another completely wrapped, ultra-reinforced plastic cover. It’s basically plastic bag upon plastic bag upon plastic bag.  I once wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald Opinion page about the overwhelming use of single-use plastic drapes, plastic hollowware, plastic reinforced theatre attire, plastic light handles, plastic tourniquets’, plastic syringes, and it’s a list that never ends. Short term, inexpensive, strong, lightweight, and convenient for an operating environment, and many theatres cases are finished in less than half an hour. Two to three large bags of waste are cleared after each operation, all day, everyday.

The Environmental Protection Agency needs a solution, and that is to avoid single-use plastic altogether and show medical companies that are pushing for single-use plastic instruments, devices and packaging, that we need to restrict waste and stop stockpiling. It feels like being told to swallow chewing gum every day.

Even the diet of the polar bear, the iconic figure representing the loss of sea ice, is said to be 25% plastic.

China started the process of traceability of waste with the National Sword Policy, but they also have a strong stance on the use of disposable items. Waste is strictly regulated. In Shanghai, hotels have shifted to eco-friendly, reusable items. Guests can no longer plow through endless freebees such as toothbrushes, razors, combs, shoe wipes, shampoos and conditioners. Hotels regulate amenities provided to guests and an overindulgence by the hotel incurs a fine ranging from $73 to $730. A drastic move, but plastic waste has already declined by 30 percent. Take-away food establishments are reining in single-use cutlery and even McDonalds in Beijing are telling people not to ask for straws anymore. So, if China can do it within the hotel and food industry, then Australia, America and the United Kingdom, all wealthy countries that can come up with bio-based materials such as Germany is working on, can do the same in healthcare.

Australia could invest in the technology to evolve into a carbon free world, but we aren’t insisting our governments lead the way, despite being a democracy.

We can wait and watch 2050 clock up to 12 billion tons of plastic waste, or we can start eliminating the use of single-use plastic in the hospital supply chain immediately.

Reading words about ‘fostering sustainable healthcare’ sounds weak unless people speak up and take a new approach.

Harriet Jones