Scrub Waste – We Can Do Better

March 22, 2021

Filed in: Our World

Scrubs.  Those colorful cloth pajamas that everyone dons when entering the hallowed sanctuary of the operating room environment.  They are meant to allow the care provider to create one extra layer of barrier between the bugs and dirt of the outside world and the hermetically controlled environment of the operating suites.  And, quite frankly, it prevents us from ruining every article of clothing that we bring into that space with bits of tissue, fluids and all sorts of other wet and staining things that can get us while we are operating.

But like many aspects of the hospital environment, they also are a potential source of waste and environmental impact.  Recently at our institution I walked into the changing room area of the operating rooms to find that the scrub dispensing had changed.  Before there was a little machine that you swiped your badge on and it opened a little window to deliver your rolled up combination of pants and shirt.  It was like one of those old fast food machines where you put in some money and opened the little glass door to grab your (who-knows-how-many-day-old) egg salad sandwich from.

Instead now, there was a new machine.  This one has a fancy touch screen where you get to select your size pants and shirts.  It has a badge swipe and this clever little chute to deliver the scrubs.  However to my horror I saw that each of these scrubs were individually tossed in a cheap plastic bag.


Next to the machine was a blue “recycling” bin meant to collect all these disposable one-time use plastic bags so that they could be tossed.  This container was already fill and brimming with discarded one time use plastic baggies.  What was the point?  It wasn’t like these scrubs are sterile and need careful individual sealing like our surgical instruments do.













I asked our administration about this excessive waste and they said “these bags were recycled.”  In reality you are not destroying this plastic, or even really getting rid of it, but most likely just putting it back into the ever growing pool of environmentally destructive plastic waste.  These scrub bags were just another element of substantial waste that is generated every single day in every single operating room.

Now imagine, every surgeon produces two of these bags a day.  Hundreds of operating rooms per day, multiple days a week.  Plastic waste everywhere for single use of questionable utility.  The pessimist in me says that on some spreadsheet bottom line in some hospital administrators finance calculations, this new system was going to save the hospital a few bucks.  Why else would we agree to a system that is clearly generating a catastrophic amount of plastic waste each and every day.

It certainly begs the questions, how can we as clinicians, hospitals and care providers do our part, in our corner of the galaxy within the operating room, to reduce our environmental impact.  Could there be biodegradable versions of these bags?  Are they necessary at all?  What about other waste in the operating room?  Could the bags and bags and bags of trash generated after every surgery also be mitigated by smarter, more thoughtful use of materials, reduced waste and sustainability?




The answer is almost certainly and emphatically YES.  We as care providers in the operating room need to do this, not only for our planet but for the efficiency and wellness of our patient care. Less waste, more thoughtful care, essential.  It is again an invitation to see how our impact, every day, in each of our spaces, is interconnected.  It is also an invitation to try and do better



The Ecosattva Vows
(by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, from Active Hope)

I vow to myself and to each of you:
To commit myself daily to the healing of our world
and the welfare of all beings;
To live on earth more lightly and less violently
in the food, products, and energy I consume;
To draw strength and guidance from the living Earth,
the ancestors, the future generations, and my siblings
of all species;
To support others in our work for the world
and to ask for help when I need it.
To pursue a daily practice that clarifies my mind,
• strengthens my heart,
• and supports me in observing these vows. <bow>




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