How a knee replacement impacts the planet

A total knee replacement can greatly improve a patient’s quality of life, but first the procedure itself will create nearly 30 pounds of waste, about half of which presents a biohazard and requires energy-intensive treatment for safe disposal.

A cataract surgery can give the gift of clear sight, but only after releasing the equivalent of 181.8 kilograms of carbon dioxide, about the same as a car traveling 315 miles.

Though healthcare is one of the largest sectors in the U.S., its environmental impacts tend to fly under the radar: It accounts for 10 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, and operating rooms generate 20-33 percent of total hospital waste. Researchers are only just beginning to track and understand the sector’s environmental impacts.

Among those researchers are a team at the University of Pittsburgh whose work quantifies the effects of healthcare on the environment, and in this case specifically focuses on a particularly waste-heavy and energy-intensive specialty: orthopedic surgery. The researchers from Pitt’s School of Medicine and the Swanson School of Engineering reviewed existing literature and found that while data is still sparse, efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of orthopedic surgery could make a huge impact.

“Surgical suites have a high environmental impact, partially because so many of the items they rely on are single-use, disposable products, like gowns, gloves, surgical instruments, and packaging,” explained coauthor Melissa Bilec, co-director of Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation and William Kepler Whiteford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “We’re just beginning to find out the impacts of the field, but we know the impacts are there. We also know that more research is needed to really define the best practices to reduce environmental impacts, climate change, and work toward a circular economy.”

A circular economy focuses on reusing items and material to keep them in circulation rather than relegating them to a landfill at the end of their lifecycle. Bilec is leading an NSF-funded project that brings together a five-university, cross-disciplinary team to utilize convergence research to address the complex challenge of global waste and creating a circular economy.

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