Waste Not, Want Not

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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Waste Not Want Not

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