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Environmental Impacts of Cosmetic Surgical Procedures



One of the major drivers of economic growth in the U.S. has become the healthcare sector, with spending on healthcare in 2012 approaching $2.8 trillion. This equals 17% of the U.S. gross domestic product. Nevertheless, it is also a notable cause of emissions that negatively impact environmental and public health.

Currently, in the healthcare industry, there are notable opportunities for advances in environmental efficiency, possibly driving to decreases in costs, resource use, and waste without jeopardizing patient care. However, limited research exists that can give quantitative, sustainable answers.

We spoke with plastic surgeon Dr. Chahal who informed us that the cosmetic surgery industry also affects the environment. In a hospital, the operating room is the most resource-intensive area, therefore surgery is an essential focal point to get to the bottom of healthcare-related emissions.

Health across the world will most likely be affected by climate change. Ironically a notable source of pollution comes from the health sector itself. The health sector covers a large portion of the national carbon emissions globally.

A 2018 study showed that the healthcare industry in Australia adds to 7% of the entire nation’s CO2e emissions, with approximately 50% of this offering coming from hospitals alone. Similar findings have been made with regard to health care in the United States (10%) and in England (4%).

The environment is greatly affected by the cosmetic surgical practice, in particular. Operating theaters contribute around 20%-30% of the average institution’s waste, even though it occupies only a comparatively small physical portion of a hospital. 

Operating theatres, along with their heating, ventilation, and air conditioning demands, are estimated to be between 3-6 times more energy-intensive than the rest of the hospital because this waste often needs to also undergo high-energy processing before it is safe for disposal. Cosmetic surgical procedures require significant care for patients in these areas.

Many of the anesthetic gases are known to contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer. They also add significantly to the carbon footprint of the operating theatre. The majority of cosmetic surgical procedures require anaesthesia but only 5%-20% of anesthetic gases are metabolized by patients. If recovery systems are not in place, the majority of the remaining gases are released into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, these gases can have a global warming potential over 2000 times that of carbon dioxide.

Strategies that focus on the operating theatre have the potential to have the greatest impact within the health-care industry because it is one of the most resource-intensive areas of the hospital.  Nevertheless, it is imperative that initiatives that decrease the impact that surgical practice has on the environment do not jeopardize patient safety or quality of care. This is even more important for cosmetic surgical procedures.

Recent research on surgery and climate change suggested that the impact of anesthetic gases on the environment could be lessened by a joined approach of reducing, reusing, and recycling. These fundamental principles of waste minimization can also be efficiently administered to the wider operating theatre, and embody a straight-forward means of reducing the environmental effect of surgical practice.

The basic idea of initiatives that endeavour to decrease surgical waste is to avoid using resources that are not required to guarantee patient or staff safety. This can include reducing electrical expense by switching off machines when they are not required, reformulating OR kits to lessen overage, and shifting to hard metal cases to decrease blue sterile wrap usage. 

The suitable waste separation also plays a large role in lessening resource use. When compared to normal solid waste, biohazard or regulated medical waste demands high energy processing and is expected to cost up to eight times that of normal solid waste. The wrong separation of waste can improve the amount that sustains high energy processing, with some studies proposing that up to 92% of a hospital’s biohazard waste may be nonhazardous.

There is no quick fix to decrease the environmental consequences that comes with cosmetic healthcare provision. Nevertheless, the prevailing condition of healthcare treatment across the globe, provides an important chance for efficiency enhancements, possibly heading to declines in costs, resource use and waste, and environmental effects.

U.S. hospitals cumulatively allocate $8.8 billion every year on energy, and they are the second most energy-intensive type of building. They produce 3.4 billion pounds of solid waste yearly, depending on the $40.3 billion disposable medical supply industry. 

Nevertheless, there is hope for the future. Hospitals are starting to carefully assess the source of negative environmental impacts in current medical practice, specifically with regard to energy, but there is little investigation on environmental impacts. With better information from more research, healthcare practitioners can strategically begin the transformation to a more sustainable system, while sustaining and enhancing the safety, comfort, and health outcomes of patients.

News, blogs and comment from Alliance Trust Investment. Articles are either original or previously featured in Alliance Trust's SRI Hub.