Almost six out of ten hospital trusts don’t have plans in place to manage or reduce their consumption of single-use plastics, according to BMA research on climate change.
More than half of hospital trusts in England (57%) and 88% in Wales do not have policy on how to reduce their consumption of single-use plastics, according to research on climate change, published by the BMA. This is despite the fact that single-use plastic makes up around a quarter of all NHS waste in England and Wales.
These figures are part of a wide ranging report from the Association, assessing the size of the health service’s carbon footprint and ways it can be reduced. It follows the pledge from NHS England last year to cut back on consumption of single use plastics as part of its Long-Term Plan.
The BMA believes that tackling carbon footprints and climate change will be one of the defining public health challenges of the century, particularly for the UK, which is the 14th largest global emitter of greenhouse gases per capita – and it’s already making many people ill.
The report shows that around 40,000 excess deaths are attributable to air pollution in the UK alone, making it unsurprising that 83% of BMA members responding to a 2019 BMA survey reported being worried about the public health impact of air pollution.
Extreme weather will also cause serious harm to health, both physical and mental, according to the paper. The UK is particularly susceptible to heatstroke and heat-related illness due to its older population and high levels of urbanisation. Equally, there is a strong correlation between flooding and increased levels of anxiety and depression.
Although the BMA recognises that reducing climate change is a society-wide effort, one of the starting points for improvement is the NHS, and ensuring the health service is properly equipped with the tools it needs to make it greener – from increasing the number of digital and remote consultations to switching to electric vehicle fleets.
In fact, health and social care-related travel accounts for around 5% of total UK road travel and the BMA’s research shows that NHS vehicles are still largely reliant on petrol and diesel rather than electricity or battery.
The doctors’ union welcomes the recent NHSE report ‘A Net Zero NHS’, which maps out a clear path to a net zero health service and makes robust recommendations at a system-wide level. Now the Association argues that hospital trusts and health boards – the organisations who will ultimately deliver the carbon reductions – understand the extent of their carbon footprint and have the necessary resources and expertise to reduce it.
Altogether, the BMA’s report calls for nine recommendations to be taken up. These include:
- Hospital trusts in England and Wales and health boards in Scotland should publish consistent and detailed reporting on their carbon footprint
- All trusts and health boards should have a policy and an ambitious target to reduce single-use plastic waste and should explore and support the sterilisation of reusable medical equipment
- UK governments should introduce a ‘Clean Fleets Fund’ for trusts and health boards to facilitate the electrification of vehicle fleets
- Trusts and health boards need more money from Government to improve existing buildings or build new ones that are sustainable
- Where clinically appropriate, expand digital and remote capability across the whole of the health sector
Dr Helena McKeown, chair of the representative body at the BMA, said:
“The amount of single-use plastics in the NHS is staggering, and something all healthcare workers like myself are acutely aware of especially with our daily use of large amounts of PPE - currently unavoidable of course, but we don’t need to generate as much waste as we do in other areas.
“There are alternatives, like sterilising reusable equipment, which would help drive down the use of single-use plastics. Doing this alone in the NHS, for example, would have a dramatic impact on our carbon footprint as a whole, and help protect the environment as we head towards potentially irreversible damage from climate change.
“If we do not take bold and decisive action to work towards reducing our carbon emissions – cutting plastic, switching to electric - we will wreak unimaginable havoc on the planet, taking an immeasurable toll on the health of people not just in the UK, but across the globe.
“The NHS has proved time and again – especially throughout this pandemic - that it is highly adaptable, which is why, as we look to life beyond the virus, there’s never been a better opportunity to make the changes we want to see and reduce our carbon footprint in the health service for good.
“Of course, this is a society-wide effort, and Government must absolutely play its part. Many trusts and health boards have already made immense progress with reducing their carbon emissions with small changes like installing LED lights and introducing more electric vehicles, but we need safeguarded funding to ensure this can be done everywhere, not just in pockets dotted around the country.
“The health of the environment is a reflection on the health of the people who live in it. We hope the Government takes heed of this report and agrees that everything must be done to improve and protect that.”
Nicky Philpott, director of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, said:
"As NHS England begins to work towards achieving carbon neutrality by 2040, the BMA's research into progress on sustainability across the NHS, and their recommendations for improvement, are incredibly valuable.
“To reduce the environmental impact of the health service - which accounts for around 5% of all UK greenhouse gas emissions - will be a big challenge for all trusts and health professionals, and will require increased support from the government. However, climate change is the greatest health threat of the 21st century and the NHS' strong commitment to tackling it is an embodiment of its commitment to protect and promote public health."
Notes to editors
The BMA is a trade union and professional association representing and negotiating on behalf of all doctors in the UK. A leading voice advocating for outstanding health care and a healthy population. An association providing members with excellent individual services and support throughout their lives.