From excessive waste to greenhouse gas emissions, healthcare organizations play a key role in contributing to climate change.
Research suggests the United States is the highest contributor to the global healthcare climate footprint. The healthcare industry accounts for 8.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.. Worldwide, the healthcare industry is responsible for 4.4 percent of net emissions, which is the equivalent of 514 coal-fired power plants, according to a 2019 report from Arup and Health Care Without Harm, a group dedicated to achieving more sustainable healthcare practices.
The medical supply chain accounts for 71 percent of healthcare’s carbon footprint. Excess waste is created from plastic gloves, surgical supplies, medicine containers and gowns, among other materials. If the American healthcare sector were its own country, it would be the 13th largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, according to a column by Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins physicians.
A 2010 study estimated that each occupied U.S. hospital bed created 33.8 pounds of waste per day. Hospitals also dispose of 2 million pounds of supplies that have never been used, which costs them $15 million each year.
Other key contributors to healthcare’s carbon footprint are emissions from facilities, which account for 17 percent of its footprint, and indirect emissions from electricity, heating and cooling, which account for 12 percent, according to the Arup and Health Care Without Harm report.
A study by the National Health Service in England found that 2 to 3 percent of its carbon footprint is created by inhaled anesthetic gases. The drugs are vented through hospital rooftops and can be destructive to the ozone layer. Despite the potential consequences of releasing the gases into the atmosphere, the U.S. has no regulations on how to dispose them.