Nurses revealed to be leading producers of NHS waste

Nursing teams would benefit the most from NHS trusts employing dedicated specialist waste managers, a report has concluded

Nursing teams would benefit the most from NHS trusts employing dedicated specialist waste managers, a report has concluded.

  • Nurses are leading producers of waste, but also largest staff group
  • Waste was broken down into three categories, with municipal waste accounting for more than half of total
  • Data obtained by RCN after freedom of information request
Picture: Tim George

An RCN investigation found that nurses are the largest producers of waste in the NHS, primarily because they are the largest staff group.

A total of 195,734 tonnes of bagged waste was produced by health organisations in England during 2015-16 at an approximate cost of £33.3 million.

The waste was broken down into three categories:

  • 54.9% was classified as municipal – including food waste and tissues.
  • 32.8% was infectious – yellow bags for waste contaminated with chemicals, medicines, laboratory specimens or diagnostic kits which must be sent for incineration. Orange bags for dressings, continence aids, bandages and protective clothing which can be sent to be rendered safe before disposal.
  • 7.7% was offensive – including stoma or catheter bags, incontinence pads, hygiene waste and blood contaminated items from screened community which may be sent for energy recovery, or landfill if not available.

Freedom of information request

The data was obtained by the RCN via a freedom of information (FOI) request to all 227 trusts in England, of which 69% (156) responded.

The college carried out a similar investigation in 2011, but explained data comparison between the two was not possible due to a 'significant reorganisation' of NHS England, which saw the number of trusts reduced from 415.

Nurses are responsible for the correct identification and segregation of the waste they produce while on shift.

The RCN notes in its report, Freedom of Information Follow Up Report on Management of Waste in the NHS, that: ‘Nurses have a significant role in supporting their employing organisation to comply with relevant waste regulations, financial savings and reductions in carbon equivalent omissions.’

It also adds they have a ‘major part to play’ in the reduction of waste and ‘require information and appropriate systems in place to help them correctly manage waste in all care settings’.

Dedicated specialist waste manager needed

After analysing the data from the FOI request, the report’s authors have found:

  • A 20% reduction in bagged infectious waste could be achieved by correctly identifying it as municipal.
  • Such a move would represent a potential year-on-year saving to the NHS of approximately £4,781,000.
  • Correctly reclassifying 50% of infectious waste as offensive could save a further £2,937,000.

To drive such savings, the report concludes: ‘The financial benefits of employing a dedicated specialist waste manager has been clearly highlighted.

‘Savings generated through effective waste management will pay for the position.

‘Nursing teams, as the largest producers of waste, would undoubtedly benefit from the expertise and support in the workplace.’

Many of the recommendations build on the work of Lord Carter's report into productivity and performance in England's NHS acute hospitals.

RCN professional lead for infection prevention and control Rose Gallagher contributed to the report and has previously called for all nurses to play a part in the procurement process to reduce waste.

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