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Two industries way behind in recycling

Two industries way behind in recycling

Posting in Energy

Aviation and health care are notorious for waste, but they can’t trash the fact that recycling will save them millions.

Any smart business leader now understands that recycling isn’t just a nice save-the-planet gesture; it’s good for the bottom line. So it’s surprising that two giant industries are so far behind in this effort: aviation and health care.

This week, a The New York Times article, Leaving the Trash Behind, explored the aviation industry’s massive contribution to global waste and their reluctance to embrace recycling, especially since travelers are already on board with the movement. Not only are millions of plastic bottles discarded at security checkpoints, but separate recycling containers in terminals or on board planes are not common. The article says there’s no industry standard for recycling:

Recycling procedures vary by airline and airport. Environmental programs involve many entities: airports, municipalities, private waste companies and federal security agencies. As a result, each of the nation’s 552 commercial airports has its own way of handling waste.

“The issue is very local,” said Nancy Young, the transport association’s vice president of environmental affairs. Continental Airlines has been recycling oil, antifreeze and other aircraft maintenance products for two or three years. Recently it began onboard collection of bottles, aluminum cans and cardboard boxes. Leah Raney, managing director of global environmental affairs for Continental, said it was recycling these items through kitchens it owns at hub airports.

This month, Green America, an environmental group, started a campaign to get air travelers to report back on their website what airlines were recycling (or what they said they would recycle) in an effort to hold the industry accountable in enforcing their polities and to push them to do better.

Hospitals are another poor recycling citizen.

"No one really thinks of good hospitals as massive waste producers, but they are," said Dr. Martin Makary, a surgeon and associate professor of public health at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and the lead author of a study published in the March issue of Academic Medicine. "There are many things hospitals can do to decrease waste and save money that they are not currently doing."

According to Johns Hopkins, medical centers are the second-largest waste producers in the United States, after the food industry. The study says recycling properly sterilized and recalibrated medical equipment—including laparoscopic ports and ultrasonic cutting tools—is safe and could save hospitals hundreds of millions of dollars annually. In operating rooms, some items that are never even used are thrown away simply because they are taken out of their packaging and could have been contaminated.

The report says only about a quarter of hospitals in the United States used at least one type of reprocessed medical device in 2002, and while the number is growing, the practice is not yet widespread. Banner Health in Phoenix, they write, saved nearly $1.5 million in 12 months from reprocessing operating room supplies such as compression sleeves and open--but unused--devices.

The government requires all reprocessed equipment to be labeled as such, along with the name of the reprocessing company. A recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded reprocessed devices do not present an increased health risk over new devices.

"These devices are safe, but it's a public relations challenge," Makary said. "Some people don't like the idea that they're being treated with equipment that has been used before. But these reprocessed devices are as good as new since the testing standards for reuse are impeccable and there have been no patient safety problems in our analysis."

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure