Written by Amy Piser
11 Jun 2021

The Elements Of Hospital Waste Reduction

Hospital waste reduction has become a topic of keen interest and growing concern among hospital administrators, as well as for managers of medical clinics, dental practices, veterinary offices, and similar biomedical enterprises. This article reviews hospital waste reduction challenges and the best ways to meet them.

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1/ Introduction

2/ Reducing Hospital Waste Inputs

3/ Reducing Paper Waste in Hospitals

4/ Reducing Plastic Waste in Hospitals

5/ Reducing Medical Waste in Hospitals

6/ Comprehensive Waste Reduction Plans

7/ Summary: The Upshot


Hospital waste reduction is logically one of the most socially‑relevant and fiscally prudent categories of waste management. Thereby, it’s become a topic of keen interest and growing concern among hospital administrators, as well as for managers of medical clinics, dental practices, veterinary offices, and similar biomedical enterprises. Consider:

In terms of social relevance, the societal benefits of “reducing, reusing, and recycling” are well known to the public, and they’ve become integral to what’s judged as good & responsible management for any enterprise, public or private. Thereby, any program centered around hospital waste-reduction and sustainability is important to your hospital’s external brand.

As to fiscal prudence, the cost benefits of any programmatic effort to reduce hospital waste are manifest. “Reducing & reusing” whatever you can lessens the demand for material inputs, which eases pressure on your operational budget. And recycling allows you to recover the residual value of spent resources rather than suffer the cost of their disposal.

Of course, the sheer breadth of paper, plastic, food, and medical-waste endemic to hospitals and other biomedical enterprises makes the tactical challenges of responsible waste management significantly more complicated than for most other kinds of business & industry.

Also keep in mind that hospital waste bears the scrutiny of at least three federal agencies—OSHA, the DOT, and the CDC—not to mention a raft of state & local entities. Thereby, it’s prudent to get expert advice before designing a hospital waste reduction program.

Reducing Hospital Waste Inputs

A logical way to reduce your hospital waste outflow is to control material inflow to the extent possible. This requires understanding what you buy, how you use it, and what amount of it you typically dispose of; and then honing your ordering practices to eliminate consequent waste due to outdating or obsolescence.

For example: auditing surgical packs to determine if any items aren’t used frequently enough for inclusion in each & every one of them; purchasing cleaning materials & equipment in quantity across departments to avoid overbuying; or using washable cups, plates, glasses, pitchers, and utensils instead of disposable ones. 

What follows are some specific ways to reduce your hospital waste within three non‑discrete categories: Paper, Plastic, and Regulated Medical.

Reducing Paper & Cardboard Waste in Hospitals

The World Health Organization estimates that 85 percent of hospital waste is of the general nonhazardous variety, more than half of which is paper & cardboard (54%). Fortunately, much of this paper & cardboard waste can be reduced by common-sense initiatives for “reducing, reusing, and recycling.” Among them:

  • On the clinical side, by using washable linens, diapers, and surgical/nursing gowns instead of paper ones.
  • Administratively, by using both sides of paper; encouraging email & messaging in lieu of paper-and-pencil correspondence; subscribing to online publications instead of their paper counterparts; and keeping recycling bins handy in conference rooms and kitchens, nearby copier & fax machines, as well as in high-traffic areas.
  • As to cleaning & maintenance, by sorting cardboard, office paper, and newspapers for recycling; and by using electronic hand-dryers in lieu of paper towels.
  • Regarding food service, by using washable cups, plates, and glasses rather than the paper kind.

As to cardboard specifically, using reusable medical waste containers can drive down cardboard waste volumes. Also, significant waste-reduction can be realized by arranging with suppliers to replace cardboard containers with reusable (plastic or metal) ones that can be backhauled; and purchasing in bulk rather than in small, individual packages.

Reducing Plastic Waste in Hospitals


One of the best ways to drive down plastic waste volumes is by using reusable medical waste containers. Beyond that, one of the challenges of recycling plastics is that—typically—any individual hospital doesn’t by itself produce enough recyclable plastic to capture the interest of a local plastics recycler.

One solution is for area hospitals to pool their recyclable plastics to achieve a critical mass. Another one—more easily realized—is to concentrate on recycling those plastic wastes that are generated in the largest quantities, and have characteristics that are of value to recyclers. For example: 

  • Sterilization wrap—aka “blue wrap,” which is made of non-woven polypropylene
  • Polypropylene irrigation bottles
  • Rigid plastic trays, basins, and containers made of PET, PETG, PS, or HDPE)  
  • Shrink wrap, stretch film, and plastic bags (PE)  (Large quantities at incoming dock areas can be easily recycled.

Experts advise that it’s best to start small, implementing a mixed-plastics recycling initiative only in one hospital area, or a limited number of rooms, and then expanding it to other locations. 

One tactic is to begin by selecting a high-impact area (e.g. an operating room), noting what plastics can be easily collected and recycled, and then implementing a pilot program there. Another is to begin with a hospital area that generates a lot of recyclable plastics, preferably one where the staff have evinced an adequate commitment for recycling. E.g. smaller areas with repetitive low-pressure activities, clean or sterile spaces, and a consistent group of staff.  

Some likely candidates are sterile areas in catheter labs, interventional radiology rooms, and  both ambulatory & primary surgery departments. Also consider clean areas in pharmacies, anesthesia rooms, and prep locations.

Reducing Regulated Medical Waste in Hospitals


An unnecessary source of excess regulated medical waste (RMW) is the incorrect or careless disposal of nonhazardous items into biohazardous waste containers. This is because incorrect medical waste categorization needlessly inflates the amount of waste destined to be treated as hazardous, thus inflating costs while providing neither an earth-friendly nor financial benefit.

An obvious deterrent to this problem is placing RMW containers only in those rooms and areas of the hospital where RMW is likely to exist or be generated, making sure they’re clearly-labeled and correctly color-coded, thereby diminishing the probability that staff will mistakenly or carelessly place general nonhazardous waste into the hospital’s hazardous waste stream. Also consider:

  • Using reusable containers for sharps, pharmaceutical, medical, and chemotherapy waste streams
  • Engaging medical waste management partners who can help educate your staff, perform waste audits, and improve efficiencies
  • Using smaller RMW containers in patient rooms to make it more difficult and thereby less likely that patients or staff will use them as trash bins
  • Where practical, making RMW containers accessible only to staff, as patients are much more apt to place waste in the wrong receptacle than are staff
  • Not placing RMW containers side-by-side with nonhazardous ones, as doing so makes it  too easy to drop waste into in the wrong container.

Developing a Hospital Medical Waste Reduction Plan

A piecemeal effort can certainly help you reduce hospital waste. But you’ll realize more benefit by developing a hospital-wide, formal, waste-management plan—one that articulates your goals, establishes procedures, and educates your staff about them.

The plan should include waste audits and periodic spot-checks to assess whether paper, plastics, cardboard, and RMW are being properly disposed of. The findings should be shared with staff, and retraining should be provided where deficiencies are discovered.

Your plan’s policies & procedures should be reviewed annually, and adherence to it cannot be optional. Staff should be incented by integrating compliance into your periodic review(s) of employee, departmental, and managerial performance so that everyone knows that following your plan isn’t an option—it’s a requirement.

The Upshot

Don’t do it alone.

Daniels offers 30+ years of unparalleled experience advising hospitals, medical clinics, dental practices, veterinary offices, and similar biomedical enterprises about the safe & legal management of their various waste streams. Our composite solutions, products, services, training, treatment, and processing have helped biomedical professionals achieve the highest standards of sustainability—worldwide.

Daniels can help you develop a plan that takes into careful account the many regulatory complexities governing hospital waste reduction—one that’s thoroughly vetted to meet or exceed federal, state, and local regulations.

Contact us today about hospital waste reduction, recycling, and reusing plans; optimization of RMW collection schedules; and more.



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Amy Piser

Amy Piser

Clinical Waste Educator

With 26 years experience working in healthcare, Amy has implemented sustainability initiatives for over 100 hospitals across the United States and brings unique practice and compliance expertise to healthcare waste management.