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Single-use and reusable products

The green equation

Single-use and reusable products: The green equation

In the healthcare sector, the choice between single-use and reusable products is a topic of ongoing debate, particularly when considering their environmental impact. Both types of products have their benefits and drawbacks, and hospitals must carefully consider various factors before making an informed decision.

Patient safety and user safety are paramount considerations in the healthcare sector. Single-use products are typically associated with reduced risks of cross-contamination, as they are designed for one-time use and are disposed of after each patient encounter. This reduces the chances of infection transmission, safeguarding the well-being of patients as well as staff in healthcare facilities. Reusable products, on the other hand, require proper cleaning and sterilisation processes to maintain their integrity, which can be more time-consuming and prone to errors. Any compromise in cleaning protocols could pose a threat to patient safety.

At first glance, single-use products in the healthcare sector may appear detrimental to the environment due to their disposable nature. The immediate disposal of these items generates waste contributing to resource depletion. However, a deeper analysis is necessary to fully understand their overall environmental impact and explore potential sustainable alternatives.

It's about more than just disposal

To accurately assess the environmental impact of single-use and reusable products, one must closely examine the entire life cycle of these items. Factors such as production, transportation, the type of materials used, and the methods of reprocessing must be considered. While reusable products have the potential to generate less waste in the long run, their production and cleaning processes may require substantial energy and chemicals for reprocessing potentially offsetting the benefits. Especially the high consumption of water resources must be taken into account when assessing the environmental impact of reusable items [1].

Instead of complete transition to reusable products, a viable way forward may be to make single-use items more environmentally friendly, for example by using recycled, bio-based, or biodegradable materials. Contaminated waste, regardless of whether it originates from single-use or reusable products, must be disposed of through specialised treatment methods such as incineration. After incineration, the metals can be recovered and returned to the circular economy. HARTMANN’s disposable instruments are already made from such recycled metals.

From throwaway economy to circular economy

However, all other types of materials, such as plastics, cannot be recovered for recycling after incineration. The use of biodegradable materials is often encouraged here, although the carbon footprint of many sustainable and biodegradable materials is not necessarily favourable. Due to the lower energy release during their incineration compared to conventional materials, the overall carbon footprint may be higher. Therefore, it is crucial to carefully evaluate the environmental impact throughout the entire life cycle of these materials before assuming their superiority. Furthermore, the current regulations and guidelines surrounding healthcare products often hinder the use of more sustainable materials for single-use items and the strict safety and hygiene standards may limit the adoption of innovative, eco-friendly alternatives.

However, advancements in technology and regulatory frameworks can enable the development of sustainable single-use products that meet both safety requirements and environmental considerations, so that the healthcare industry can minimise waste and reduce its carbon footprint. This would allow hospitals to maintain the advantages of single-use products while mitigating their environmental impact. In the sense of a circular economy, it must be evaluated in the future how raw materials can be recovered from the materials.

In certain areas of healthcare, such as the zone-specific clothing in operation rooms, single-use products dominate. Approximately 80% of the clothing currently used is disposable due to the critical nature of maintaining sterility and cleanliness [2]. HARTMANN is working towards sustainability by redesigning products to provide the same performance and safety as current products, but with a lower carbon footprint. These initiatives demonstrate that it is possible to combine patient safety with sustainable practices.

Disposable products account only for a portion of waste

It is crucial to note that discussions about single-use and reusable products should take into account the bigger picture. Depending on the country and size of the hospital, single-use products account for about 20% of the waste generated [3] but only for 3% of the total carbon emissions of a hospital [4]. Other waste sources, such as packaging materials and non-healthcare-related waste, often have a higher impact on overall waste management. While addressing single-use products is important, it should be part of a comprehensive waste reduction strategy that targets all areas contributing to waste generation.

Sustainability is of utmost importance, however, patient and user safety must always remain the top priority in the healthcare sector. Waste is a valuable material that must be separated correctly and reprocessed sensibly, minimising its environmental impact without compromising safety.


  1. Keil, et al.(2023) Eur J Public Health. 33(1):56-63.
  2. American Laundry News (accessed on 20.06.2023).
  3. Ivanović, et al. (2022) Resour Conserv Recycl. 185(1):106425.
  4. Wagner, et al.(2022) Zielbild: Klimaneutrales Krankenhaus (Wuppertal Report Nr. 24). Wuppertal Institut,doi: 10.48506/opus-8075

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