marisa morby

Design & Nature Reimagined: The dirty business of healthcare

We've already talked a little bit about plastics and the harm they do to the environment. We've talked about plastic pollution and how it breaks down into microplastic. If you learn _anything _from me, I hope it's this. We are part of an ecosystem. So that means everything we do impacts something else. We may not see it or experience it, but we are interconnected. So, health impacts the environment because the healthcare system produces a huge amount of waste that contributes to a world filled with microplastics and trash.

In order to address the waste issue, we have to address what's causing the waste. From single use medical supplies to dealing with hazardous material, to the cleanliness standard, we've got a lot to address.

This is a unique place for design, innovation, and nature to come in, because healthcare really isn't something that's really in the front of our minds when we talk about waste. The minute you turn your attention to it, of course, you can see the problem. But it exists in the background, polluting in huge quantities every day without us really thinking about it.

Reducing single use plastics in healthcare

When single use plastic was first invented, I imagine was about as close as humans could get to experiencing a miracle. The sterility, flexibility, and options single use plastic provided saved many, many lives. Things like IV transfusions became safer and more easily stored. Today, a single hysterectomy produces about 20 (9 kg) pounds of plastic!

But our reliance on single use plastics in the United States of America was fueled in a large part by the AIDS epidemic. Our fear of the virus made healthcare shun _anything _that could be reused. And that fear, that overreaction, really cemented our reliance on plastics in medicine.

Looking for quick wins

This overuse of plastic presents a pretty unique design challenge. There are a lot of things we could do to reduce plastic use simply by looking at the single use tools that we already use and deciding if they really, _really _need to be single use in order for them to be safe. For those instruments that actually can be reused, cleaning solutions and instrument care could help reduce our reliance on plastic. And really, a lot of them can be reused—even the plastic items. There's no reason for us to throw something away if it can be reused and not harm anyone. Even if it was built with the original intention to be discarded after being used once.

I talked a little bit about biodegradable plastics in this post, and healthcare would be another great place to use a biodegradable material. Of course, it would need to be truly biodegradable (like sunflower seed husks) to not harm the environment even more. And going one step further from that, there are some hospital supplies that have a biodegradable counterpart that already exists. Things like hospital cups and plates have cardboard options that would be much easier to recycle than styrofoam. Hospital management just needs to make the decision and choose that option instead of the unsustainable one.

Creating alternatives that don't include plastics

But in some cases, we may need to rethink the plastics we use entirely. This is where we see ideas like the Enviro Pouch. This pouch, created by two dentists, allows them to steam sterilize tools safely. And this pouch is reusable!

Other sterilization pouches have to be thrown away after one use, but these can be used over 200 times, eliminating quite a bit of waste.

Thinking about other work being done to eliminate plastics, we could see how eventually this could be incorporated into healthcare. But first it seems that the healthcare industry and hospital management first need to admit we have a problem with waste in the industry in order to commit to a change.

That's it for now! Hospital equipment isn't that exciting, so instead I'll leave you with a picture of a beautiful hospital garden in the UK. This is a treatment facility for people that are recovering from spinal trauma. The garden was designed by Joe Swift and is set up so that those in wheelchairs can easily reach the garden bed to plant and weed. And those who are confined to a bed can be rolled throughout the garden, so they can enjoy the fresh air and flowers.

A paved garden plaza with tall grasses, purple flowers, trees, and raised beds in the background.

Horatio's Garden: https://www.horatiosgarden.org.uk/the-gardens/horatios-garden-stoke-mandeville/