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Hospitals throw out millions of dollars worth of unused medical supplies every year, for a number of reasons. For instance, because they're outdated. Non-profit groups are collecting the supplies and shipping them to developing countries. But tons of items still wind up in landfills. As part of a collaboration with Northeast stations, Josie Huang of
For more than 30 years Elizabeth McLellan has been a nurse and she still can't get over how many perfectly good items hospitals discard. She recalls how one hospital switched to a new type of catheter, and no longer wanted the old kind.
"And they were going to throw it all away, probably about $5,000 worth of supplies were going to be thrown away in the trash."
McLellan couldn't let such supplies go to waste. So she started a non-profit that collects unwanted inventory from hospitals in
"Sterile syringes, diabetic syringes, insulin syringes, gloves, alcohol swabs, everything you could possibly imagine."
McLellan says hospitals throw out these items that were once in a patient's room because of strict infection-control protocols. They're required for hospital accreditation.
"Maybe you have invested in some inventory with a physician who no longer is with you or maybe there is a new procedure that came out that can supercede an old procedure, and you no longer need the supplies for that old procedure."
Anesthesiologist William Rosenblatt of the Yale School of Medicine says the biggest source of wasted supplies is the operating room. Rosenblatt says surgeons request enough supplies for worst-case scenarios but always have leftover items.
"It can be anywhere from a surgical gown and some gloves which might take up a small lunch bag worth of material to a cardiac procedure where there are lots of drapes, lots of gowns, lots of gloves."
Rosenblatt says a surgery case can generate up to a $100 in wasted supplies. But he says American patients wouldn't have it any other way.
"If I was a patient in the operating room, I would want to know that the surgeon has immediately available not just what is going to be needed for my procedure but also materials that are there just in case."
To minimize waste, Rosenblatt in the early 1990s founded a medical supply recovery program called REMEDY, like the group in
"An unopened pack of sutures is far more preferable to dipping gauze in alcohol, pulling the string out and turning it into sutures which is a strategy that's employed in many developing nations when they don't have sutures to use."
There's the potential for even more supplies to go abroad. Right now, just 10 percent of hospitals in the US are estimated to have arrangements to donate them.
Back in Maine, Elizabeth McLellan and other volunteers have moved the bags into her driveway and are measuring them by the pound. The final tally is about 10,000 pounds and that's just from a handful of hospitals. McLellan expects that number to grow if she can just convince more hospitals to get on board.
For WNPR,I'm Josie Huang.
Northeast Environmental Coverage is part of NPR’s Local News Initiative.