Climate change is a chronic disease. Thanks to our lifestyle habits, Earth has developed the airways of a smoker, tumors of trash and bodies of water poisoned by pollution. It's no secret that our current treatment of the Earth is killing the planet and inadvertently killing ourselves. As our campus saw last Friday during the Global Climate Strike, the youth of today are not ignorant of this fact nor willing to tolerate it any longer. The question still remains as to whether this spark of action can be fanned into a flaming movement. If the climate strike movement is in need of tinder to fuel its next initiative, then U.S. hospitals should be the next place it fans the flames. 

As is the case for many industries, health care has an insatiable appetite for fossil fuel energy, which inevitably leads to greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gases are silent and stealthy killers. One American Journal of Public Health article found that such emissions “will negatively affect public health because of an increased prevalence of extreme weather, flooding, vector-borne disease … and malnutrition.” While the deadly effect of greenhouse gas emissions is nothing new, the fact that the U.S. health care system is one of the world’s largest contributors of lethal greenhouse gases is an irony that has been largely ignored by most hospitals. Investigators projected greenhouse gas emissions “associated with health care in the United States would cause 123,000 to 381,000 disability-adjusted life-years in future health damages.” Ironically, the hospitals that are entrusted with keeping American communities healthy are a major contributor to one of humanity’s greatest threats. In the words of a Popular Science article, one 2013 study found that between generating energy, using medical supplies and pharmaceuticals “the U.S. healthcare system is responsible for around 10 percent of the total emissions in the United States.” If all U.S. health care facilities in the United States were a country on their own, that country would be the seventh-largest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions in the world, according to a HealthLeads Article.

Unfortunately, the irony of the U.S. health care does not end with pollution. U.S hospitals play a significant role in growing America’s cancerous piles of landfill trash. The Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council found that American health care centers “generate approximately 14,000 tons of waste per day and that up to 25 percent of that waste is plastic packaging and products.”

A collaborative report by the Center of International Environmental Law found that the breakdown of plastics in landfills or through incineration can lead to the release of microplastics that end up in the food we eat or the air we breathe. Pollutants such as phthalates and BPA can be reabsorbed by surrounding soil and water supplies. 

In response to these environmental atrocities, some would argue the U.S. health care system should invest in alternative energy sources like solar power or wind turbines. However, suggesting such a fix is ignorant of hospitals’ limited budgets and does nothing to reduce plastic landfill waste. Others are confident that incinerating medical waste to power hospitals is the answer. However, incineration is a double-edged sword. Incineration may reduce the volume of waste, but according to the same Center of International Environmental Law report, the toxic chemicals released from incineration are just as problematic to our health as the plastic left in landfills. 

Instead, the solution lies in rethinking plastic medical supplies. I envision altering plastic medical supplies, one of the most common forms of medical waste that ends up in landfills, to be plant or biomass-based. Researchers at Michigan State University have already found success in this venture, according to Michigan Radio. While plant-based medical plastics is not a novel idea, I propose this innovation could go a step further by tailoring these plant-based plastics to be converted into energy without the need for incineration. Anaerobic digestion is the process by which energy is generated through the breakdown of plant-based material under intense heat by bacteria. With the help of this technology, municipal plastic waste from health care could power hospitals without releasing greenhouse gasses. Overnight, plastic medical waste could transform from being cancerous to cured. 

Not only does climate change demand we rethink medical supplies, it also demands we rethink health care recycling. By no means should the responsibility of reducing health care’s environmental impact fall only on hospitals. As future patients or health care professionals, we are also responsible. Therefore, health care recycling should be a grassroots movement. Imagine if even a fraction of the 3,500 tons of plastic that U.S. health care facilities send daily to landfills were properly sanitized and recycled to make new medical supplies. The same plastic waste that could have ended up in a landfill poisoning America’s heartland could instead be promoting heart health as a new stethoscope.

Environmental health is personal health. Unfortunately, U.S. health care has yet to recognize this truth. We simply do not have time to wait for health care leaders to realize this. Every day, the chronic disease of climate change only grows worse. While I do not want to diminish the importance of taking steps as individuals to reduce, reuse and recycle, I stand with the Climate Strike and know demands for individual efforts are not enough. There is no neutral territory when you are combating a chronic pandemic. Either you are combating the disease, or you are the disease. It is time to diagnose which side you are on.

Soneida Rodriguez can be reached at soneida@umich.edu.

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