Gloves, water bottles and waste reduction: how you can be greener at work

Simple changes every staff member can make, from virtual meetings to rethinking single-use

Simple changes all healthcare staff can make, from virtual meetings with colleagues and patients to rethinking single-use PPE and patient care items

Illustration representing healthcare professions and climate issues
Picture: iStock

Concerns about the climate crisis have never been more pressing, and the NHS has an ambition to be the world’s first net zero national health service for carbon emissions by 2040.

Here we look at some small, simple changes nurses can make day to day to help make their workplace a little greener.

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Say no to non-sterile gloves

Even before the pandemic, around 1.4 billion gloves were used across the NHS each year.

Non-sterile gloves are often used when not needed, taken off too late or not changed when they should be. Their use has been associated with a significant potential for cross-contamination and transmission of healthcare-associated infections.

A campaign at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital encouraged staff to really question when they needed non-sterile gloves. Staff were asked to risk assess if they were going to come into contact with blood or bodily fluid, and to only wear them if it was certain or highly likely.

Within a year of the campaign launch, 21 tonnes of plastic had been saved by using 3.7 million fewer disposable gloves. This had also saved the trust £90,000 and nurses reported that the skin on their hands was healthier from wearing gloves less often.

Keep on Zooming – virtual meetings make a difference

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Remote meetings with colleagues and, when appropriate, with patients can reduce carbon and pollution created through travel, as well as saving time and the stress of battling traffic.

Using technology to link up is one change that seems likely to remain after the pandemic.

RCN sustainability lead Rose Gallagher says: ‘As a nurse who worked in a big trust with three sites 15 miles apart, remote meetings are definitely the way forward and nurses are definitely embracing that where possible.

‘The eco benefits are clear, and it also saves time and stress trying to find a parking space.’

Remote consultations, where appropriate, also look to continue post-pandemic: University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust says that providing 500,000 remote appointments to patients will reduce patient travel by 50%, leading to 14 million miles of travel saved.

Bring your own cup and bottle… and shun single-use plastic in the canteen

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With more than four times as many coffee shops today as there were in the year 2000, a pitstop on the way to work or at break time is an easy and tempting option.

However, despite a common belief to the contrary, almost all disposable cups are not recycled due to their tightly bonded plastic lining, which is difficult to remove, and the challenges of recycling packaging contaminated by beverages.

This results in at least 2.5 billion coffee cups being thrown away each year in the UK, according to a Commons environmental committee paper.

Switching to a reusable cup and water bottle is a simple way to reduce waste going to landfill, and also saves the energy used to make and transport the cup.

There are many different sustainable cups and bottles available, some of which provide a key worker discount, including SHO and SoleCup.

Having bought at least 163 million plastic cups, 16 million pieces of plastic cutlery, 15 million straws and 2 million stirrers in 2018, the NHS in England pledged in 2019 to drastically reduce their use. Opting for glasses, china mugs and reusable cutlery at work when possible will go a long way towards achieving this.

Be water efficient at work

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Water treatment is energy- and chemical-intensive and transporting water around the country requires a great deal of pumping, according to not-for-profit organisation WaterWise.

Reducing water use will therefore have an impact on reducing carbon. Progress is already being made on this; between 2010 and 2017 health and care services reduced water consumption by 21% – equivalent to 243,000 Olympic swimming pools – according to NHS England.

Taking small steps at work to be water efficient, such as turning off taps, not over-using water and flagging up leaks, is something that nine out of 10 (89%) of NHS staff say they already do at work.

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Think about whether something really needs to be used

Healthcare uses a lot of consumables and kit, much of it single-use and difficult to recycle. Really thinking through whether something is needed, or is simply used out of habit, can reduce waste, says Ms Gallagher.

Some items, such as incontinence pads, gloves and disposable plastic aprons, may be used when not required.

‘Nurses are really questioning whether some items are needed,’ says Ms Gallagher. ‘They are rightly asking for the evidence base for what we use and sometimes it is not there. Plastic aprons are a good example; they are widely used, but often with very little evidence base.’

Reuse to reduce – an online tool to help

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Some NHS organisations are finding new ways to reuse items. The Wrap platform is an online tool created to help increase the visibility of assets available for re-use within and across organisations in the UK.

Hywel Dda University Health Board in Wales has used the tool to reuse stationery, storage, desks, chairs and non-electrical medical equipment, saving about £230,000 through avoiding new purchases. This represents 161 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) and 41 tonnes of waste diverted from landfill.

Nurses at some organisations have switched to recyclable sharps bins that can be reused, rather the single-use sealed units that have long been the norm, Ms Gallagher says.

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Get involved with procurement

While this is more of a long-term change, nurses being involved in procurement is fundamental to improving sustainability.

One area that nurses tell the RCN they are frustrated about is the packaging of items they use daily. Being involved with procurement can support nurses to demand that packaging is improved so that it is more easily recyclable, there is less of it or it works more effectively.

‘Nurses have told us how frustrated they are by the design of glove boxes. They want to take out one or two, and more fall out, go on the floor, and have to be thrown away,’ says Ms Gallagher.

‘Or they see that an item comes in a huge, unnecessary cardboard box. Nurses are the ones who use the equipment, who know what works. Nurses have to be involved and work with manufacturers to improve the sustainability of items.’

Seek out procurement leads and sustainability champions, ask questions about how these decisions are made, and ask to be involved, says Ms Gallagher.

We have produced these tips in a video that can be shared on your social networks. Watch and share below:

Erin Dean is a health journalist