The researchers, coming from Brighton and Sussex Medical School and the University of Warwick, looked at operations across three locations at University Hospitals Sussex NHS Foundation Trust. They observed that 68% of the CO2 footprint from operations came from single-use items such as instrument tables, gowns, and drapes.
The operation with the highest footprint with 85.5kg CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) turned out to be knee replacements. Gall bladder removal is in second place with 20.3kg CO2e, followed by carpal tunnel decompression surgery (12kg), hernia repair with (11.7kg), and tonsillectomy (7.5kg).
CO2e measures CO2 footprints and is a common methodology that compares emissions of different greenhouse gases by converting them into CO2.
According to the study, as little as 23% of items were responsible for over 80% of the operations’ CO2 footprint, so focus should be put on discovering alternatives for these single-use and often plastic items.
According to Dr. Chantelle Rizan, who was the lead researcher on the study, replacing single-use items with reusables, as well as better decontamination and waste processing could bring down the CO2 footprint of surgeries by a third.
“Mitigating the carbon footprint of products used in resource-intensive areas such as surgical operating rooms will be important in achieving net zero carbon healthcare,” she said.
The research, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, is the first to analyze the CO2 footprint of items used in common surgeries.
The study said no evidence suggests that reusable textiles are inferior to downs and drapes for single use.
“This model was based on reusable alternatives already on the market, and this figure may be surpassed where the industry rises to the challenge of sustainable surgical product innovation,” Dr. Rizan said.
NHS England aims to bring down its CO2 footprint of direct emissions to net zero by 2040. That includes energy use, facilities, waste, and water. The UK healthcare system also wants to reduce indirect emissions (for example coming from construction, catering, shipping, IT and patient travel) by 2045.