Medical waste is a big environmental problem — and getting bigger with COVID-19

Samples are tested for COVID-19.
Mayo Clinic is conducting a drive-through process in Rochester to collect COVID-19 specimens for testing. A lot of waste produced by hospitals has to be burned. The incinerators used to do that emit more carbon dioxide per megawatt hour than coal power plants.
Courtesy of Mayo Clinic file

The health care industry is responsible for 10 percent of the United States’ carbon emissions, according to Yale researchers.

One part of that is medical waste — a lot of the waste produced by hospitals has to be incinerated. That emits more carbon dioxide per megawatt hour than coal power plants, said Toya Lopez of Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate. She is also an administrative fellow at Hennepin Healthcare.

An even bigger source of emissions, Lopez said, is the manufacturing and shipping of supplies.

The COVID-19 pandemic is requiring more of both, as testing and safety protocols call for more single-use materials.

But health care organizations across the country are implementing recycling and reuse programs to tackle the problem. Many health care professionals are also calling on suppliers to green their manufacturing and shipping processes.

Lopez joined MPR chief meteorologist and Climate Cast host Paul Huttner on Climate Cast. You can hear their conversation by clicking play on the audio player above.

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