Health Care Waste Management and the Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a collection of 17 global goals set by the United Nations, with the aim of transforming the world by 2030 through the fight against extreme poverty, inequality, injustice and climate change and in the search for a more prosperous, equitable, and sustainable world. They call for action by all countries, rich and poor, to promote prosperity while protecting the planet. 

Success in healthcare waste management will speed progress towards meeting several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, particularly:

  • (3) Good health and wellbeing,
  • (6) Clean water and sanitation,
  • (8) Decent work and economic growth
  • (12) Responsible consumption and production and
  • (13) Climate action   

SDG 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

Good health is an essential element of sustainable development. Despite progress in life expectancy, maternal and child health, HIV and other areas, many diseases and persistent and emerging health issues remain. Healthcare waste management is one area that has been persistently under-recognised and under-resourced, with enormous knock-on effects for workers, patients and the community. Solving this problem would remove direct and indirect threats to the health of over half the world’s population.

SDG 6 Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

SDG 6 aims to improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, and improving wastewater treatment and increasing recycling and safe reuse globally.  The World Health Organization, recognizing the interrelation between waste and water, has incorporated healthcare waste management into its water, sanitation and health program for healthcare. To be truly successful, this program must implement waste treatment technologies which do not create toxic residues or emissions in their own right.

SDG 8: Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all

SDG 8 is about making sure that work provides people a way out of poverty. Despite carrying out a task vital to society, waste workers are too often underpaid, under-educated and under-protected. In many cases, not only do workers lack a living wage, but working conditions violate their human right to a safe working environment. There needs to be a step-change in the way the healthcare waste management and its workers are viewed. It needs to be recognised as an essential public service, with professional standards, vaccinations, training, decent conditions, a living wage and respect for the men and women that carry it out.

SDG 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

SDG 12 includes targets on reducing pollution and health impacts through environmentally sound management (ESM) of all waste throughout the product life cycle; promoting waste prevention, reduction, and recycling and reuse. Sustainable procurement is also required: almost all hospital waste has come in the front door as a product. Healthcare needs to leverage its buying power to ensure that the materials it purchases generate as little waste as possible that is toxic, non-repairable, non-recyclable or simply unnecessary. Advocating for the replacement of these products with safer alternatives, the healthcare system can help kick-start the global circular economy.

Minimising waste, segregating at source, avoiding incineration, and recycling all conserve resources and energy. Research conducted by HCWH proved that autoclaving has waste has CO2 emissions at least fifteen times lower than waste incineration. Organic wastes produce methane gas as they degrade, but if this is done in a controlled manner in a biodigester, the methane can be captured for use as a fuel. Because methane has a stronger greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide, burning it reduces the CO2 emissions of the waste.

These techniques all help mitigate climate change. Sustainable healthcare waste management technologies such as biodigestion and autoclaving can also play a role in making healthcare systems more resilient to disasters.