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Greening the OR

In a profession dominated by throwaway supplies and overpackaged items, it’s difficult for physicians to square their work with the concept of environmental stewardship.“I remember one day watching the waste from my OR going down the hall,” said Dr. Mike Brennan, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish. “There were two huge plastic bags of waste from one small procedure. Even for something like carpal tunnel surgery, the amount of waste was incredible.”

For more than a decade since then, Dr. Brennan has been helping reduce waste in his operating room, and in the hospital overall. The OR of any hospital generates about one-third of all hospital waste, despite its small working area.

“In this COVID-19 era, the volume of medical waste locally and worldwide has grown exponentially,” Dr. Brennan said. “We need to be aware of our enlarging footprint and how we can mitigate it.”

How waste is sorted in hospitals is part of the problem. Hospital staff often don’t understand what constitutes biohazardous medical waste or what’s recyclable, so they toss most OR waste into biohazard bags.

“To sort waste properly, we need more awareness in our ORs about what’s truly biohazardous waste and what’s recyclable. People need to know what’s safe and complies with standards.”

To tackle the waste issue at St. Martha’s, Dr. Brennan formed an OR green team in 2012. An OR waste audit that year helped the group narrow its focus. “We found out that 90% of our OR waste was non-biohazardous and at least 50% of it was recyclable,” he said.

Blue drapes were the main culprits, constituting 40% of total waste in the OR. These polypropylene sheets cover sterilized equipment, tables and patients, and staff were discarding them as general or biohazardous waste, even if uncontaminated. “Blue drapes from ORs across Nova Scotia today are generally thrown out, even though they are recyclable if clean,” said Dr. Brennan.

Five years ago, OR staff at St. Martha’s began separating and storing clean blue drapes. Dr. Brennan says nurses, doctors and housekeeping staff all supported the move. “It’s no more work. We have proper containers in the OR, so it’s separated at source.”

Last year, Goodwood Plastic Products, which manufactures plastic lumber products in Stewiacke, received a stockpile of baled drapes from the hospital. Dr. Brennan worked with company founder Dan Chassie, the company’s vice-president and co-owner, to make it happen.

He says OR blue drapes are ideal for making plastic lumber. “Post-consumer plastic is extremely inconsistent, which makes it harder to recycle,” said Mr. Chassie. “The blue drapes are clean and consistent material that enhances our lumber.”

He’s happy to accept the drapes but says local demand for the lumber has sunk during the pandemic. “It’s been a strange year,” he said. “We’d normally be doing trade shows, but that’s not been possible. There’s also been very little interest from government to use our products in provincial parks, boardwalks and trails.”

Dr. Brennan hopes a solution can be found. “Goodwood is a gift right in our back yard.” He says his goal is to see all Nova Scotia hospitals recycling their blue plastic drapes. “There are resources in our waste that we’re throwing out.”

This is a condensed version of a story that appeared in the February 2021 issue of doctorsNS magazine. To read the full story, click here.

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