In a world of throwaways, making a dent in medical waste


c.2010 New York Times News Service

The health care industry has a garbage problem.

It's not just that hospitals, doctors' offices, clinics and other health facilities generate several billion pounds of garbage each year: Buried in that mountain of trash are untold numbers of unused disposable medical devices as well as used but recyclable supplies and equipment, from excess syringes and gauze to surgical instruments.

The problem, fueled by a shift toward the use of disposables that made it simple to keep treatment practices sterile, has been an open secret for years, but getting the health care industry to change its habits has not been easy. No organization currently tracks how much medical trash the United States produces - the last known estimate, from the early 1990s, was 2 million tons a year.