Waste Not, Want Not

Typically trashed but useful medical supplies find new life, and give it, in developing countries

| December 14, 2006

The thought of reusing medical waste evokes fears of wheezing respirators, rusty scalpels, expired medicines, and litigious patients. But 'waste' often simply translates as 'unused.' In US operating rooms alone, reports George Black for On Earth, about 2,000 tons of unused medical supplies are trashed every year.

Medical items aren't just junked because they've passed their expiration date. Much of the refuse is rooted in competition for lucrative hospital supply contracts, reports Black. When a new supplier comes in, everything from the old supplier is tossed in the landfill. This kind of waste is expensive, further inflating already outrageous health care costs and, ironically, exacerbating the very health problems being treated; hazardous waste is burned, coughing cancer-causing dioxin and toxins into the air.

Kathleen Hower saw this baffling system first-hand as a hospital administrator in Pittsburg. Yet she saw the refuse as 'surplus' instead of 'waste' and realized the potential to 'make what's a problem here into a solution there.' By 'there' Hower means developing countries, and through her visionary program, Global Links, she has sent to them a bounty of much-needed medical supplies. Black reports that Global Links has provided sutures, syringes, catheters, surgical gowns, even beds that would have otherwise been scrapped. Recipient hospitals in Central and South America, the Caribbean, and, more recently, Africa and Asia are ensured safe supplies. According to the Global Links website, items are checked by volunteers before being sent and then staff of the recipient institution evaluates the quality of supplies they receive.

Hower's program is an exciting example of how even the most entrenched, institutionalized obsolescence can be fought. It's also an important reminder that much of what we trash in this country is desperately needed in others. As the organization's motto says, 'People in other countries are literally dying for what we throw away.' -- Elizabeth Oliver

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