Some hospitals are pioneers in ditching plastic, turning green
This is part 2 of a three part series on a new generation of doctors leading the charge to make the health care industry more sustainable - for the benefit of their patients and the planet. Read part 1 here and part 3 here.
After graduating from her studies as an engineer, Nora Stroetzel ticked off the top item on her bucket list and traveled the world for a year. She loved remote places like the Indonesian rain forest she reached only by hiking for several days on foot, mountain villages in the Himalayas, and diving at reefs that were only accessible by local fishing boats.
“But no matter how far from civilization I ventured, one thing was already there: plastic,” Stroetzel says. “Plastic that would stay there for centuries, on 12,000 foot peaks and on beaches several hundred miles from the nearest city.” She saw “wild orangutans that could be lured by rustling plastic and hermit crabs that used plastic lids as dwellings instead of shells.”
While traveling she started volunteering for beach cleanups and helped build a recycling station in Indonesia. But the pivotal moment for her came after she returned to her hometown Kiel in Germany. “At the dentist, they gave me a plastic cup to rinse my mouth. I used it for maybe ten seconds before it was tossed out,” Stroetzel says. “That made me really angry.”
She decided to research alternatives for plastic in the medical sector and learned that cups could be reused and easily disinfected. All dentists routinely disinfect their tools anyway and, Stroetzel reasoned, it wouldn’t be too hard to extend that practice to cups.
It's a good example for how often plastic is used unnecessarily in medical practice, she says. The health care sector is the fifth biggest source of pollution and trash in industrialized countries. In the U.S., hospitals generate an estimated 6,000 tons of waste per day, including an average of 400 grams of plastic per patient per day, and this sector produces 8.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide.
“Sustainable alternatives exist,” Stroetzel says, “but you have to painstakingly look for them; they are often not offered by the big manufacturers, and all of this takes way too much time [that] medical staff simply does not have during their hectic days.”
When Stroetzel spoke with medical staff in Germany, she found they were often frustrated by all of this waste, especially as they took care to avoid single-use plastic at home. Doctors in other countries share this frustration. In a recent poll, nine out of ten doctors in Germany said they’re aware of the urgency to find sustainable solutions in the health industry but don’t know how to achieve this goal.
After a year of researching more sustainable alternatives, Stroetzel founded a social enterprise startup called POP, short for Practice Without Plastic, together with IT expert Nicolai Niethe, to offer well-researched solutions. “Sustainable alternatives exist,” she says, “but you have to painstakingly look for them; they are often not offered by the big manufacturers, and all of this takes way too much time [that] medical staff simply does not have during their hectic days.”
In addition to reusable dentist cups, other good options for the heath care sector include washable N95 face masks and gloves made from nitrile, which waste less water and energy in their production. But Stroetzel admits that truly making a medical facility more sustainable is a complex task. “This includes negotiating with manufacturers who often package medical materials in double and triple layers of extra plastic.”
While initiatives such as Stroetzel’s provide much needed information, other experts reason that a wholesale rethinking of healthcare is needed. Voluntary action won’t be enough, and government should set the right example. Kari Nadeau, a Stanford physician who has spent 30 years researching the effects of environmental pollution on the immune system, and Kenneth Kizer, the former undersecretary for health in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, wrote in JAMA last year that the medical industry and federal agencies that provide health care should be required to measure and make public their carbon footprints. “Government health systems do not disclose these data (and very rarely do private health care organizations), unlike more than 90% of the Standard & Poor’s top 500 companies and many nongovernment entities," they explained. "This could constitute a substantial step toward better equipping health professionals to confront climate change and other planetary health problems.”
Compared to the U.K., the U.S. healthcare industry lags behind in terms of measuring and managing its carbon footprint, and hospitals are the second highest energy user of any sector in the U.S.
Kizer and Nadeau look to the U.K. National Health Service (NHS), which created a Sustainable Development Unit in 2008 and began that year to conduct assessments of the NHS’s carbon footprint. The NHS also identified its biggest culprits: Of the 2019 footprint, with emissions totaling 25 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent, 62 percent came from the supply chain, 24 percent from the direct delivery of care, 10 percent from staff commute and patient and visitor travel, and 4 percent from private health and care services commissioned by the NHS. From 1990 to 2019, the NHS has reduced its emission of carbon dioxide equivalents by 26 percent, mostly due to the switch to renewable energy for heat and power. Meanwhile, the NHS has encouraged health clinics in the U.K. to install wind generators or photovoltaics that convert light to electricity -- relatively quick ways to decarbonize buildings in the health sector.
Compared to the U.K., the U.S. healthcare industry lags behind in terms of measuring and managing its carbon footprint, and hospitals are the second highest energy user of any sector in the U.S. “We are already seeing patients with symptoms from climate change, such as worsened respiratory symptoms from increased wildfires and poor air quality in California,” write Thomas B. Newman, a pediatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, and UCSF clinical research coordinator Daisy Valdivieso. “Because of the enormous health threat posed by climate change, health professionals should mobilize support for climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.” They believe “the most direct place to start is to approach the low-lying fruit: reducing healthcare waste and overuse.”
In addition to resulting in waste, the plastic in hospitals ultimately harms patients, who may be even more vulnerable to the effects due to their health conditions. Microplastics have been detected in most humans, and on average, a human ingests five grams of microplastic per week. Newman and Valdivieso refer to the American Board of Internal Medicine's Choosing Wisely program as one of many initiatives that identify and publicize options for “safely doing less” as a strategy to reduce unnecessary healthcare practices, and in turn, reduce cost, resource use, and ultimately reduce medical harm.
A few U.S. clinics are pioneers in transitioning to clean energy sources. In Wisconsin, the nonprofit Gundersen Health network became the first hospital to cut its reliance on petroleum by switching to locally produced green energy in 2015, and it saved $1.2 million per year in the process. Kaiser Permanente eliminated its 800,000 ton carbon footprint through energy efficiency and purchasing carbon offsets, reaching a balance between carbon emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere in 2020, the first U.S. health system to do so.
Cleveland Clinic has pledged to join Kaiser in becoming carbon neutral by 2027. Realizing that 80 percent of its 2008 carbon emissions came from electricity consumption, the Clinic started switching to renewable energy and installing solar panels, and it has invested in researching recyclable products and packaging. The Clinic’s sustainability report outlines several strategies for producing less waste, such as reusing cases for sterilizing instruments, cutting back on materials that can’t be recycled, and putting pressure on vendors to reduce product packaging.
The Charité Berlin, Europe’s biggest university hospital, has also announced its goal to become carbon neutral. Its sustainability managers have begun to identify the biggest carbon culprits in its operations. “We’ve already reduced CO2 emissions by 21 percent since 2016,” says Simon Batt-Nauerz, the director of infrastructure and sustainability.
The hospital still emits 100,000 tons of CO2 every year, as much as a city with 10,000 residents, but it’s making progress through ride share and bicycle programs for its staff of 20,000 employees, who can get their bikes repaired for free in one of the Charité-operated bike workshops. Another program targets doctors’ and nurses’ scrubs, which cause more than 200 tons of CO2 during manufacturing and cleaning. The staff is currently testing lighter, more sustainable scrubs made from recycled cellulose that is grown regionally and requires 80 percent less land use and 30 percent less water.
The Charité hospital in Berlin still emits 100,000 tons of CO2 every year, but it’s making progress through ride share and bicycle programs for its staff of 20,000 employees.
Wiebke Peitz | Specific to Charité
Anesthesiologist Susanne Koch spearheads sustainability efforts in anesthesiology at the Charité. She says that up to a third of hospital waste comes from surgery rooms. To reduce medical waste, she recommends what she calls the 5 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rethink, Research. “In medicine, people don’t question the use of plastic because of safety concerns,” she says. “Nobody wants to be sued because something is reused. However, it is possible to reduce plastic and other materials safely.”
For instance, she says, typical surgery kits are single-use and contain more supplies than are actually needed, and the entire kit is routinely thrown out after the surgery. “Up to 20 percent of materials in a surgery room aren’t used but will be discarded,” Koch says. One solution could be smaller kits, she explains, and another would be to recycle the plastic. Another example is breathing tubes. “When they became scarce during the pandemic, studies showed that they can be used seven days instead of 24 hours without increased bacteria load when we change the filters regularly,” Koch says, and wonders, “What else can we reuse?”
In the Netherlands, TU Delft researchers Tim Horeman and Bart van Straten designed a method to melt down the blue polypropylene wrapping paper that keeps medical instruments sterile, so that the material can be turned it into new medical devices. Currently, more than a million kilos of the blue paper are used in Dutch hospitals every year. A growing number of Dutch hospitals are adopting this approach.
Another common practice that’s ripe for improvement is the use of a certain plastic, called PVC, in hospital equipment such as blood bags, tubes and masks. Because of its toxic components, PVC is almost never recycled in the U.S., but University of Michigan researchers Danielle Fagnani and Anne McNeil have discovered a chemical process that can break it down into material that could be incorporated back into production. This could be a step toward a circular economy “that accounts for resource inputs and emissions throughout a product’s life cycle, including extraction of raw materials, manufacturing, transport, use and reuse, and disposal,” as medical experts have proposed. “It’s a failure of humanity to have created these amazing materials which have improved our lives in many ways, but at the same time to be so shortsighted that we didn’t think about what to do with the waste,” McNeil said in a press release.
Susanne Koch puts it more succinctly: “What’s the point if we save patients while killing the planet?”
Story by Big Think
On June 12, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket deployed 72 small satellites for customers — including the world’s first space factory.
The challenge: In 2019, pharma giant Merck revealed that an experiment on the International Space Station had shown how to make its blockbuster cancer drug Keytruda more stable. That meant it could now be administered via a shot rather than through an IV infusion.
The key to the discovery was the fact that particles behave differently when freed from the force of gravity — seeing how its drug crystalized in microgravity helped Merck figure out how to tweak its manufacturing process on Earth to produce the more stable version.
Microgravity research could potentially lead to many more discoveries like this one, or even the development of brand-new drugs, but ISS astronauts only have so much time for commercial experiments.
“There are many high-performance products that are only possible to make in zero-gravity, which is a manufacturing capability that cannot be replicated in any factory on Earth.”-- Will Bruey.
The only options for accessing microgravity (or free fall) outside of orbit, meanwhile, are parabolic airplane flights and drop towers, and those are only useful for experiments that require less than a minute in microgravity — Merck’s ISS experiment took 18 days.
The idea: In 2021, California startup Varda Space Industries announced its intention to build the world’s first space factory, to manufacture not only pharmaceuticals but other products that could benefit from being made in microgravity, such as semiconductors and fiber optic cables.
This factory would consist of a commercial satellite platform attached to two Varda-made modules. One module would contain equipment capable of autonomously manufacturing a product. The other would be a reentry capsule to bring the finished goods back to Earth.
“There are many high-performance products that are only possible to make in zero-gravity, which is a manufacturing capability that cannot be replicated in any factory on Earth,” said CEO Will Bruey, who’d previously developed and flown spacecraft for SpaceX.
“We have a team stacked with aerospace talent in the prime of their careers, focused on getting working hardware to orbit as quickly as possible,” he continued.
“[Pharmaceuticals] are the most valuable chemicals per unit mass. And they also have a large market on Earth.” -- Will Bruey, CEO of Varda Space.
What’s new? At the time, Varda said it planned to launch its first space factory in 2023, and, in what feels like a first for a space startup, it has actually hit that ambitious launch schedule.
“We have ACQUISITION OF SIGNAL,” the startup tweeted soon after the Falcon 9 launch on June 12. “The world’s first space factory’s solar panels have found the sun and it’s beginning to de-tumble.”
During the satellite’s first week in space, Varda will focus on testing its systems to make sure everything works as hoped. The second week will be dedicated to heating and cooling the old HIV-AIDS drug ritonavir repeatedly to study how its particles crystalize in microgravity.
After about a month in space, Varda will attempt to bring its first space factory back to Earth, sending it through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds and then using a parachute system to safely land at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range.
Looking ahead: Ultimately, Varda’s space factories could end up serving dual purposes as manufacturing facilities and hypersonic testbeds — the Air Force has already awarded the startup a contract to use its next reentry capsule to test hardware for hypersonic missiles.
But as for manufacturing other types of goods, Varda plans to stick with drugs for now.
“[Pharmaceuticals] are the most valuable chemicals per unit mass,” Bruey told CNN. “And they also have a large market on Earth.”
“You’re not going to see Varda do anything other than pharmaceuticals for the next minimum of six, seven years,” added Delian Asparouhov, Varda’s co-founder and president.
In today’s podcast episode, I talk with Nir Barzilai, a geroscientist, which means he studies the biology of aging. Barzilai directs the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
My first question for Dr. Barzilai was: why do we age? And is there anything to be done about it? His answers were encouraging. We can’t live forever, but we have some control over the process, as he argues in his book, Age Later.
Dr. Barzilai told me that centenarians differ from the rest of us because they have unique gene mutations that help them stay healthy longer. For most of us, the words “gene mutations” spell trouble - we associate these words with cancer or neurodegenerative diseases, but apparently not all mutations are bad.
Centenarians may have essentially won the genetic lottery, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us are predestined to have a specific lifespan and health span, or the amount of time spent living productively and enjoyably. “Aging is a mother of all diseases,” Dr. Barzilai told me. And as a disease, it can be targeted by therapeutics. Dr. Barzilai’s team is already running clinical trials on such therapeutics — and the results are promising.
More about Dr. Barzilai: He is scientific director of AFAR, American Federation for Aging Research. As part of his work, Dr. Barzilai studies families of centenarians and their genetics to learn how the rest of us can learn and benefit from their super-aging. He also organizing a clinical trial to test a specific drug that may slow aging.
Age Later: Health Span, Life Span, and the New Science of Longevity https://www.amazon.com/Age-Later-Healthiest-Sharpest-Centenarians/dp/1250230853
American Federation for Aging Research https://www.afar.org
Metformin as a Tool to Target Aging
Benefits of Metformin in Attenuating the Hallmarks of Aging https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7347426/
The Longevity Genes Project https://www.einsteinmed.edu/centers/aging/longevity-genes-project/
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.