Written by Josh Glover
20 Apr 2023

A Method for Reducing Single-Use Plastics in the NHS

Single-use plastics are a major problem in the NHS, with high volumes of plastic waste generated every day. Not only do these plastics harm the environment, but they also have a significant economic and health impact. In this blog, we delve into the impact of single-use plastics in the NHS, and where they stand in the waste hierarchy. We also introduce a method for reducing single-use plastics in the NHS—reusable sharps containers, which have been proven to reduce carbon emissions.

Read on to learn more about the role of reusable sharps containers in reducing single-use plastics in the NHS and making it a more sustainable, cost-effective, and safer system for staff and patients.


1 / The impact of single-use plastics in the NHS.

2 / Single-use plastics and the waste hierarchy

3 / Where are single-use plastics in the waste hierarchy?

4 / A method for reducing single-use plastics in the NHS

5 / The impact of reusable sharps containers.

6 / Reducing single-use plastics in the NHS  

The Impact of Single-Use Plastics in the NHS

The environmental impact of single-use plastics in the NHS is significant; they’re not easily recyclable and are often used in large quantities throughout hospitals across the UK.

When sent to landfill they can take hundreds of years to decompose, causing harm to wildlife and marine life and releasing harmful greenhouse gases as they break down. High-temperature incineration is another carbon-intensive method used for their disposal. There’s also the carbon footprint of manufacturing and transporting products to take into account.

Single-use plastics in the NHS also have an economic impact – the costs associated with their purchase and disposal can quickly add up.

Finally, they have an impact on health, with some items within the container being a potential source of infection if not disposed of properly. Disposable sharps containers are easily punctured and often overfilled, leading to a risk of needlestick injuries and potential blood-borne infections.

It’s crucial for the NHS and other healthcare facilities to consider the overall environmental, economic and health impact of single-use plastics when making decisions around their procurement and use. 

Single-Use Plastics and the Waste Hierarchy

To understand more about the impact of single-use plastics, it’s crucial to know where they’re situated in the waste hierarchy.

What Is the Waste Hierarchy?

The waste hierarchy is a framework that ranks the most environmentally friendly ways to manage waste. It consists of the following steps, listed in order of priority from most to least favourable:

1. Prevention: Reducing the amount of waste generated through measures such as minimising, reusing, and recycling products.

2. Correctly Segregate: Ensuring that generated waste is correctly segregated into the appropriate waste streams helps to maximise opportunities for reuse, recycling, and recovery.

3. Recirculate/Re-use: Recirculating and reusing products instead of disposing of them after a single use where suitable when waste cannot be prevented.

4. Recycle: Transforming waste materials into a new substance or product. A last resort for recovering material from waste because it usually entails using resources or energy to generate a new product.

5. Generate for Energy Sources: Using waste to generate energy and recover other resources such as water, heat, material, and nutrients.

6. Disposal: Sending waste to high-temperature incinerators or alternative treatment facilities.

7. Landfill: Landfilling secures waste in a single location but there’s a limited capacity. It also contributes to harmful greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

The waste hierarchy is used as a guide to help organisations make the most environmentally friendly choices when managing waste to minimise the impact it’s having. 

Where Are Single-Use Plastics in the Waste Hierarchy?

Single-use plastics fall close to the bottom of the waste hierarchy as they’re not easily recycled and are considered to be one of the least environmentally friendly waste types. They do not adhere to the principles of preventing or reducing waste, conserving resources, or minimising environmental impact. Instead, they contribute to environmental degradation and waste with their impact being far from sustainable.


A Method for Reducing Single-Use Plastics in the NHS

Encouraging sustainable procurement is an effective way to prevent single-use plastics in the NHS and this can be done by identifying and selecting sustainable products ahead of time as well as working with suppliers to reduce packaging waste.

A method for reducing single-use plastics in the NHS that we’re strong advocates of and is a good example of sustainable procurement is the implementation of reusable sharps containers.

Reusable sharps containers are both sustainable and cost-efficient. They can be used many times (some up to at least 500 washes) which significantly reduces the volume of containers being manufactured. This results in reductions in both carbon emissions and manufacturing and transport costs.

In terms of their impact on health, ISO-Compliant reusable sharps containers such as Sharpsmart are also safer to use than disposable sharps bins, clinically proven to reduce needlestick injuries by up to 87%. Reusables align with the waste hierarchy’s principles of prevention and reuse by eliminating the need for single-use plastics entirely.

By converting to reusable options when it comes to plastic items such as sharps containers, the NHS can move towards more environmentally friendly practices, achieve sustainability benchmarks and ultimately, reach net zero. 

The Impact of Reusable Sharps Containers

The recent “Impact on Life-Cycle Carbon Footprint Study” conducted by Grimmond TR, Bright A, Cadman J, et al, and published in the British Medical Journal Open, compared the global warming potential of hospitals converting from single-use disposable sharps containers to reusables

The study was conducted over a 12-month period across 40 acute care trusts; representing three-quarters of NHS trusts using reusable sharps containers at the time; also taking into account the transport of materials, the plastic manufactured, and cardboard used.

The results of the study prove that annually for every 100 beds you could:

  • Reduce your carbon footprint by 11.2 tonnes of CO2e.
  • Eliminate the incineration of 3.1 tonnes of plastic.
  • Eliminate the use of 0.5 tonnes of cardboard.
  • Eliminate the manufacture of 5,837 single-use sharps containers.

Learn more about the proven carbon footprint reduction of switching to reusables.


The Environmental, Economic, and Health Impacts of Reusable Sharps Containers

An analysis carried out by Sustainability West Midlands (SWM) considered the environmental, economic, and health impacts of University Hospitals Coventry & Warwickshire NHS Trust (UHCW) after converting to reusable sharps containers.

The life-cycle assessment projected that over a 10-year period, the reusable containers will:

  • Reduce CO2e by 2,053 tonnes (92%).
  • Save around £20,000 per annum.
  • Significantly reduce disposal-related sharps injuries.

It’s clear from the examples shown in the research and case study above that implementing reusable sharps containers not only helps to reduce carbon footprint but also improves the safety and cost-effectiveness of the NHS. 

Reducing Single-Use Plastics in the NHS

As we’ve seen, single-use plastics are a major problem in the NHS that have a significant environmental, economic, and health impact. Implementing solutions such as reusable sharps containers is a highly effective way for the NHS to reduce their environmental impact, save money, and improve the overall health and safety of staff and patients. Feel free to contact us to learn more about how reusable sharps containers can help you and your hospital trust on the route to net zero.




Header Style: 
Josh Glover

Josh Glover

Content Specialist

As a natural storyteller driven by curiosity, Josh aims to educate and engage through informative and thought-provoking content; working towards a safer and more sustainable healthcare system.