27 Apr 2021

Environmental cost of healthcare's 'secret' toxic waste

From Nine To Noon, 9:42 am on 27 April 2021

Medics and chemical engineers are calling for safe and effective disposal of hospital waste. 

Anaesthetic gas alone rivals the carbon footprint of long haul flights, with emissions from a single hospital in New Zealand equalling 500 return flights between Auckland and London. 

Dr Rob Burrell and associate professor Dr Saeid Baroutian, are calling for improved monitoring and investment in technology to properly dispose of toxic hospital waste.

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Photo: Supplied

Dr Burrell is an anaesthetist and part of a team at Middlemore Hospital that reduced the hospital's carbon footprint by more than 20 percent over five years.

“One anaesthetist working by themselves in one day could probably produce something like a tonne of CO2 and when you think the average New Zealander produces roughly 18 tonne of CO2 a year, anaesthesia is over represented in its share of carbon footprint,” Dr Burrell told Nine to Noon.

The safe disposal of pharmaceutical waste remains a problem in New Zealand, he says.

 “New Zealand doesn’t have a culture of product stewardship, we don’t take our waste back to where we got it from, in New Zealand we tend to be responsible for it ourselves and that hasn’t worked very well for us.

“We are left with a 1960s idea that we can just throw things in the ground. Putting it in the ground is way too easy.”

Hospitals generate a great deal of waste, Dr Baroutian who leads the University of Auckland's Waste and Resource Recovery Research Group, says.

Prevention, minimisation and reduction followed by reuse, recycle and recover is best practice, he says.

“Disposal should be the last resort, not the first option in waste management.”

However, pharmaceutical waste poses a particular problem, he says.

“Recycling and reusing is not an option for pharmaceutical waste, unlike plastic waste, we can’t reuse.”

Currently New Zealand uses autoclave technology before sending the drugs to landfill, he says.

“This technology can not destroy or deconstruct the chemicals, they remain in toxic forms in our environment.”

Incineration is the only practical and efficient method for pharmaceutical and hazardous waste treatment, he says. This is where waste is burned at temperatures of between 900 and 1200 centigrade, however this is not allowed in New Zealand.

New Zealand sends its toxic pharmaceutical waste offshore to be incinerated, he says but this is expensive.

His team is three years into research on a suitable technology for dealing with this problem in New Zealand.

“We have the proof of concept and it is ready to be scaled up.”