Can health care, life sciences firms help heal the Earth?

The United States health sector is responsible for about 8.5% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions,1 and approximately 25% of global health care sector emissions.2 US hospitals generate more than 6 million tons of waste each year.3 This includes everything from food waste to disposable and single-use devices to regulated medical waste, which often has to be incinerated. A single medical procedure, such as a total knee replacement, can generate nearly 30 pounds of waste.4 But health care and life sciences companies are coming under increasing pressure to develop strategies to reduce their carbon footprint.

For this year’s Earth Day (April 22), Deloitte Consulting LLP joined the Commonwealth Fund and the Black Directors for Health Equity Agenda (BDHEA) to produce a report that describes the impact the health sector has had on climate change. The paper also explores how decarbonization efforts could help to improve the health of the planet and its inhabitants. (The report, Accelerating health equity and business resilience through decarbonization, is available on BDHEA\’s home page.)

According to our research, I believe the health care sector is being pushed in the right direction. On Earth Day last year, the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) launched the Health Sector Climate Pledge.5 The goal of this voluntary commitment is to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050. More than 100 organizations (representing 837 hospitals) signed the Pledge before the October 28, 2022, deadline.6 Suppliers, health plans, and pharmaceutical companies also joined. Last month, HHS’s Office of Climate Change and Health Equity said it would remove the deadline so that organizations could continue to sign the Pledge.7

In addition, the Inflation Reduction Act, which was signed into law last summer, could help drive more climate-conscious strategies.8 The law, for example, expands tax credits for companies that adopt energy-saving renewable technologies. These credits are available to non-profit organizations, such as hospitals and health systems (a majority of US hospitals are non-profit.9) Moreover, the Joint Commission has made environmental sustainability a strategic priority for its accredited organizations.10

Compostable surgical masks: During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic,  health care facilities generated more than 7,000 tons of waste every day—some of this waste was made up of single-use surgical masks.17 Canada-based PADM Medical recently received clearance from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to market a compostable plant-based medical-grade face mask.18 Most disposable Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) consists of petroleum based, non-biodegradable polymers that can take up to 450 years to decompose in landfills, rivers, lakes, and other natural environments.19

Credits: Elizabeth Baca, M.D., M.P.A., managing director, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Read the full article on Deloitte

Endnotes: 

Decarbonizing the US health sector, The New England Journal of Medicine, December 2, 2021 

2 Health care pollution and public health damage, Health Affairs, December 2020

3 How should US health care lead global change in plastic waste disposal?, American Medical Association, Journal of Ethics, October 2022

4 How a knee replacement impacts the planet, University of Pittsburgh, June 6, 2022

5 HHS launches pledge initiative to mobilize health care sector to reduce emissions, HHS press release, April 22, 2022 

6 HHS: 102 healthcare orgs have signed onto climate pledge, Fierce Healthcare, November 10, 2022

7 HHS reopens health sector climate pledge, HHS press release, March 9, 2023

8 IRS releases frequently asked questions about clean energy property credits, IRS press release, December 22, 2022

Hospitals by Ownership Type, Kaiser Family Foundation, 2022

10 Joint Commission’s 3 strategic priorities, Joint Commission, November 2, 2022

17 Recyclablu turns upcycled medical waste into PPE, Forbes, May 19, 2021

18 PADM Medical gets first medical clearance for plant-based mask, FDA News, March 15, 2023

19 Disposable masks and their impact on climate change, Yahoo!, February 28, 2022