Doing our part: Derms have opportunities to contribute to environmental sustainability

October 1, 2009

Have you ever examined what is left in your exam rooms at the end of the day? The staff is gone and the patients have all left, but something very important is left behind. What is it? Your trash!

Key Points

You see a wastebasket full of used table paper, drape sheets, sterile glove packaging, autoclave pouches, paper hand towels and facial tissues in the non-contaminated trash, and a contaminated bin full of bloody gauze, cotton-tipped applicators, gloves, paper surgical sheets, dressing materials, adhesive patches, surgical stand drapes, needle covers and plastic wrap isolation covers.

You also see a sharps disposal container full of used needles, blades and syringes. Your office trash can is full of old journals, advertising, newspapers, opened envelopes, notepad papers and discarded correspondence.

The trash cans from the front office are full of paper, mailing envelopes, computer printouts and old magazines.

One evening, I decided to take all the trash from one day's worth of patient visits and put it in our central lab to examine the amount and contents of our daily refuse. It was astounding how much medical and household waste lie at my feet.

Realization

This realization that some of our most valuable raw materials will lie in landfills around the United States has led to a new area of study known as sustainability.

Simply put, sustainability is the evaluation of resource allocation to ensure the availability of raw materials to fuel the next generation. I think sustainability is an important consideration for dermatology and for all of medicine in general.

How can we, as environmentally conscious dermatologists, ensure that we do our part?

Daily practice

There are several easy ways to bring the concept of sustainability into our daily practices.

First, most medical supply companies offer recycled paper products. While these products are not as white as new paper, using recycled table paper, patient drape sheets, paper hand towels and paper Mayo stand covers is a good start toward conserving the environment.

Secondly, using reusable equipment such as metal scalpel handles and punches also saves waste and prevents non-biodegradable plastics from entering the landfill.

Also, avoiding the use of disposable metal products such as aluminum foil can also help preserve resources. Using only what is necessary to accomplish good care and wasting little is an important concept.

Packaging

Sustainability has also become important in the skincare world, where companies are re-evaluating packaging and raw material use. Minimizing metal foils, avoiding shiny paper boxes, eliminating empty box headroom, discontinuing outer shrink wrap use and using symbols to indicate plastic recycling suitability are all becoming standard in skincare product manufacturing.

Protecting resources

Companies are also reassessing what happens to the water supply when substances are washed down the drain. How does hair shampoo and body wash residue affect groundwater supplies, and how is the residue removed at municipal water treatment plants?

Attention is also being paid to the renewal of botanically derived materials used in cosmeceuticals, such as shea butter, white tea extract, mangosteen pulp and more.

Appreciation

There can be no doubt that dermatologists must embrace the concept of sustainability. We must consider the environmental impact of our practices and of the materials in the prescriptions that we write and the products we recommend.

We must also evaluate our personal lives to be sure that we minimize our environmental footprints and that we instill a sense of responsibility in our patients and our children.

It is a sobering thought when we realize that everything is finite. Our lives are finite, our world is finite and our ability to harvest resources is finite.

This realization makes us more appreciative of all of our gifts and the bounty our beloved Earth has to offer. With appreciation comes gratitude, and with gratitude comes a more rewarding life.

Zoe Diana Draelos, M.D., is a Dermatology Times editorial adviser and investigator, Dermatology Consulting Services, High Point, N.C.