26 JUNE, 2022

As some of you may know, I am a doctor, and like many medics throughout the UK am acutely aware of the amount of extra plastic being used to help combat the pandemic.  

single use face masks

At the hight of PPE use there were plastic aprons, masks, face visors and gloves. Clear guidelines on how to use them (in informative videos titled ‘how to don and doff your PPE’) and when to use  them (always unless you were eating or sleeping) were widely available. It was appropriate at the time and helped save many lives. 


But this week the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that COVID-related plastic waste is itself a threat to human health. 


Globally, an estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves have been used each month during the pandemic, 75 % of which will end up in landfill or the ocean, says the WHO. 

In the UK it’s estimated that the NHS alone used up to one billion surgical masks in the 12 months from February 2020. The NHS Supply Chain estimate that almost a quarter of the NHS’s waste in England and Wales is plastic.  

In March this year Dutch researchers detected microplastics in human blood and tissue for the first time.  

If we don’t endeavour to reduce the medical reliance on single use plastic and switch to more sustainable systems surely, we are at risk of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ 

NHS trusts need to step up to the mark, have clear polices around waste management and single use plastic, and encourage all staff to facilitate the change. Unfortunately recent research found that only 4 in 10 NHS trusts report having a policy to deal with single use plastic. 


While all this is very depressing, there is good news. The NHS even before the pandemic was making attempts to reduce their plastic use, recycle and use alternatives.  

Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust (where  climate campaigner Dr Stableforth works) has invested in a Sterimelt machine to divert plastics away from incineration. It uses heat to turn face masks and other plastics such as theatre tray wrap into polypropylene blocks. In conjunction with a local firm these blocks have been turned into litter pickers, donated to every local school and college. 


Other initiatives are coming on stream, recycling schemes for clean PVC medical devices such as anaesthetic masks, oxygen masks and tubing were being trialled in several trusts before the pandemic. Some manufacturers are starting to use biodegradable materials such as compressed hemp for medical textiles and masks.

Recently the Royal College of Nursing had a Glove Awareness Week, encouraging health professionals to be more discerning in their use of plastic gloves. A pre pandemic campaign at Great Ormond Street Hospital encouraged staff to stop using non-surgical gloves where hand washing would suffice. This saved the hospital 21 tonnes of plastic and £90,000 in just 10 months. 

WHO have criticised the use of gloves when vaccinating people, good hand hygiene will suffice. 


Leeds Teaching Hospital NHS Trust found during part of a ‘Green Surgery Challenge’, a pilot run by the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare , that simply inviting patients to visit the toilet before their operation eliminated the need for using a urinary catheter (yet another piece of plastic tubing ) during the operation.  


The initiatives are there, the NHS staff are willing. But the staff need back up from the NHS trusts. The NHS banned smoking on the premises years before it was banned in other public places. Surely it can lead again making healthcare settings places where sustainable practice can thrive. 


To quote Dr Stableforth ‘we shouldn’t talk about ‘waste’ and ‘throwing things away’ because there is no such thing as ‘away’. ‘People want to do the right thing, but hospitals and the NHS have to facilitate that’. 



  •     The main facts for this article were obtained from ‘The doctor’  (issue 44 June 2022) a weekly magazine for BMA members.

Written by Dr Tina Grayson

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