NHS: efficiency savings through waste reduction was the subject of a recent joint meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Health Group and the All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group at the Houses of Parliament.

I had the chance to talk about the work that we’ve been doing in the healthcare sector, particularly at Guy’s and St Thomas’ – we’ve been working hard to reduce waste, cut costs and build a culture where staff are encouraged and empowered to use clinical resources as efficiently as possible, ultimately benefitting patients.

A wide range of professionals took part, including MPs, healthcare and waste professionals, and members of the House of Lords. The panel was chaired by Neil Carmichael MP, with other contributions made by Dr Terry Tudor, Senior Lecturer in Waste Management at the University of Northampton, and Dr Frances Mortimer, Medical Director of the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare.

A recurring theme: delivering more value from waste streams

Dr Mortimer shared an early release of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges’ report, which sparked headlines about healthcare workers’ “fundamental responsibility” to address wastage in healthcare. Many organisations are spending excessive amounts on waste management, simply because they have not scrutinised their contracts or challenged their waste management providers to deliver the best value.

The healthcare sector has viewed waste as a fixed cost for too long

At Guy’s and St Thomas’, we have been fortunate to work with a proactive and highly engaged waste management company, Bywaters, who have taken our call for innovative approaches to waste management very seriously. Bywaters have helped us to implement a number of initiatives, such as converting our used cooking oil into biodiesel for local use, and supporting our furniture repair and re-use scheme which saves the Trust over £150k per year.

A fundamental barrier for the healthcare sector, and indeed the public sector as a whole, is the fact that existing waste programmes are not reviewed as a matter of priority. Waste costs are generally less than 10% of energy costs and as a result can often be overlooked. This oversight, however, means huge opportunities are missed.

4 things every healthcare organisation can gain from reviewing their waste management programme

New services

  • Often healthcare organisations are paying for services that they aren’t receiving – take a look at the promises made when the contract was signed and challenge waste service providers that aren’t delivering.

Cost reduction

  • There aren’t many waste providers out there who will lower their waste charges without being challenged. Despite landfill tax going up, some waste costs are coming down. The sector is beginning to innovate and there is more competition in the market than ever before in the UK. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Better health outcomes

  • Clinical staff care about their patients and want to ensure that they are getting the best care – often they see waste in the system and are infuriated by it, but do not feel empowered to challenge the status quo. A culture of constructive challenge – fostered by clear, consistent commitment from the organisation – leads not only to better waste management, but fulfilled staff and more resources for patient services.

Improved compliance

  • A by-product of engaged staff, but a very important one. When those using the resources are encouraged to contribute to a better way of ordering, using (possibly reusing!) and ultimately disposing of them, a culture is established that encourages dialogue and responsible disposal of waste.

Waste can be a very engaging element of the sustainability agenda – people can contribute to proper waste segregation and tangibly see the results of their positive actions. That’s a powerful thing, but it requires organisational commitment to really deliver full value from waste. Challenge your waste supplier, push them on price and enable your staff to take initiative and challenge the status quo.

Alexandra is Associate Director, Sustainability at Essentia, and has led on the multi-award winning sustainability programme at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust for the past five years.