Cut backs and staffing concerns leave recycling in the shadows at UK hospitals

Written by: Adam Read | Published:
External Affairs Director at Suez Adam Read
Another confirmation of what we find in our visits to NHS facilities!

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Here I am two weeks into my rest and recuperation period at home following the removal of my gall bladder at Warwick Hospital on the 19t January 2018.

As my wounds recover and I regain my strength so my mind starts to wander about my short stay in hospital. And although I cannot fault the quality of the care, I was a little surprised by the waste management facilities on offer.

Usually in my case, hospitals and I see one another in emergency situations only, my long-standing pancreatitis resulting in rapid onset of pain and a period of weeks recuperating on a drip with painkillers.

Under these circumstances, I, like so many other patients, won’t be considering the availability of recycling bins on the ward, whether there are food waste recycling bins in the canteen, or just how accurately the clinical waste is being segregated into the visible yellow bins.

However, this time round, I was to report several hours before my surgery, and once back on the ward I would have 48 hours of clinical monitoring prior to my discharge, just to make sure everything was working as it should.

This meant I had time to watch, engage and reflect on life on a hospital ward. Unfortunately, it was soon obvious to me that in the number of wards where I was based, and this rings true with my experiences in hospitals in London and Northampton over the years, that bin provision, signage, segregation and training is still way short of what it should be.

What’s not working?

Staffing levels were definitely tight over the weekend I spent in hospital, but perhaps more obvious to me was the obvious lack of bins.

In my bay of three beds, there was one general waste bin, but nothing for recycling or clinical waste. On the ward as a whole I found two mixed recycling bins and several clinical bins, but little residual bin coverage. In the shower room, the only bin was for clinical waste, so what about the recyclables, packaging and such like from my shower, shaving and washing activities?

On occasion, I left recyclables and waste materials on my bedside table and asked the cleaners, nurses and helpers to help direct me to the right bin. More often than not I was met with doubt, uncertainty and an open willingness to get rid of the offending item, but I doubt this was in the most appropriate receptacle. This disappointed me, and although I raised the issue a few times, it seemed prudent to let it drop, after all the last thing I needed was my care team being annoyed with me, as I was supposed to be resting.

So it seems that Warwick Hospital, like so many others in the UK, would benefit from a decent audit. An assessment of its bins, signposting, waste composition in each receptacle and a cost-benefit analysis of the savings that could be achieved if the recyclables were kept separate from the residual waste and only the clinical waste was being placed in the expensive to handle and dispose of clinical bins.

This is something Zero Waste Scotland and the NHS in Scotland have been actively working on for the last five years or so, and their Waste Action Plan (2016-2020) outlines a number of simple, easy to implement changes in bin locations, signage and staff training to help drive down costs and improve waste and resource management on the wards.

The targets might sound large (zero food waste and 17% reduction on waste arisings) but simple initiatives, best practice guides and case studies are proving that they are deliverable. However, this has not been my experience in any of the hospitals I have been unfortunate enough to visit in England in recent months and years.

Food waste

But it shouldn’t stop there, what about the waste that staff and visitors generate in the café and canteens in our hospitals? I was pleased to see a large food waste bin in the café, but the only other bin was for everything else, so no segregation.

I was also disappointed with the signage, which took me several minutes to fully understand and no pictures, meaning I could see why so much of the leftovers (food or not) was ending up in either bin.

Just think about the opportunities for better waste management, saving money, and generating heat or power on site. The economics of different approaches to hospital waste management have been analysed by the likes of WRAP and ZWS over many years.

I remember supporting a number of English Hospital Trusts in the late 1990s on this issue, yet here we are in 2018 with hospitals failing to even get the basics right. I daren’t ask about their green procurement policy or their carbon reduction plans- they were a step to far!


So much has been done to identify cost saving opportunities throughout the NHS, yet so little has been implemented, or is visible today, and where it has it has not always been effective.

Better signage, staff training and regular audits are needed to check that the right materials are being segregated and costly clinical waste disposal is not the catch all for all residuals on the wards.

I would advise anyone interested in waste and resource management in the NHS to take a closer look next time they visit a loved one, pop in for some tests, or are spending the night post op.

If we can share good and bad practice, raise awareness of the simple and cost-effective measures that work (with great case studies), then perhaps we can change the tide.

Yet for now I will be directing my care team towards the best practice guides and studies done in Scotland that show just what can be done with a little bit of effort from all those involved.

Feeling better

I wouldn’t want you to think it was a negative stay in hospital, far from it. Normal service has resumed and I am sharing my insights on my experiences, where things could and should change, and I hope this nudge does some good.

The care and attention given by all the staff to my health and well-being could not be faulted, and I thank them all for their help whilst I was a resident, their primary job is caring for the ill, and they did a first class job.

So hospital management wake up and let’s get some manpower, budgets and effort put into saving the hospital money, while not distracting the doctors and nurses from their critical duties. For example, it was nice to see the anaesthetic team had invested in their own segregation bins to help address the problem and bring their budget spend down.

Resources are important and hospital expenditure is huge, so only a small percentage saving could be significant in terms of nursing care and patient access – you know it makes sense.

I will be back at work next week, recovering well, and I look forward to hearing your stories of good and bad practice in our hospitals.

Each month, Dr Adam Read, External Affairs Director at Suez, discusses the big issues within the sector.

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Another confirmation of what we find in our visits to NHS facilities!

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