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    The Average Knee Operation Produces Thirty Pounds of Garbage

    Written by

    Ben Richmond

    Contributing Editor

    Photo via

    Like Macklemore, I’m all for buying secondhand. Clothing, plates, furniture–I even get my dogs from the pound. But like anyone raised with a healthy fear of unhealthy bodily fluids, I want to see my doctor ripping open the sterile packaging on anything she plans on inserting in me, without a trace of another patient to be found.

    While individually this seems reasonable—I’m young, healthy and uninsured, so it’s not like I see medical professionals often—it’s adding up, cumulatively. Hospitals produce literally tons of waste every day. Looking at routine knee replacement surgeries, researchers from the University of Western Ontario found that the procedure produced an average of 29.3 pounds of medical waste. The operation, the study states, produces more waste than a family of four produces in a week.

    Filling the OR’s garbage pail after an average knee replacement were: 64 plastic wrappers, 41 surgical gloves, 29 green sterile towels, 10 vinyl gloves, five surgical gowns, five surgical drapes and three table covers were used per knee replacement, the report states. Multiply these numbers times 47,000—the number of knee surgeries in Canada the year before the study—and you get 450 tons of waste, just from knee surgery. And our neighbors to the north aren’t alone.

    American hospitals produce an estimated 5.9 million tons of waste annually and the operating room is the biggest waste producer in the hospital—accounting for 20 to 30 percent of the total. An article in The New York Times points to the emergence of HIV as the catalyst leading to a movement from reusable glass and metal instruments to disposable ones in the 1980s.

    With this in mind, the health care world is looking for ways to maintain the highest standards of hygiene, while cutting down on the number of red medical waste bags they produce. The non-profit Practice Greenhealth leads the charge with their “Greening the Operating Room” initiative, which has its first symposium in September. MedWish International, another non-profit, aims to rescue usable medical surplus from the refuse pile and safely redistribute it to the developing world.

    The ideal is the three prong of environmentally friendly, completely sterile and cheaper for the hospital, and it may not be far off. More than half of American hospitals send some “single-use” devices to reprocessors who sort and sterilize the equipment and sell it to hospitals for 40 to 60 percent of the original cost. The president of the Association of Medical Device Reprocessors wrote that green intiatives could potentially save hospitals $15 billion over the next 10 years.

    While thrift stores have made it abundantly clear that sterility and cheapness can feel mutually exclusive, hospitals are striving to prove the opposite. According to this study from the UWO, surgeons have their work cut out for them. Physicians, heal thyselves.