Plastic: NHS bids to cut up to 100 million plastic straws, cups and cutlery from hospitals

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The NHS will slash the use of plastic in hospital canteens as part of its drive to reduce waste and make hospitals healthier for patients and staff.

Major high street names and suppliers including Marks & Spencer and WH Smith are backing the call by NHS chief executive Simon Stevens to dramatically cut the amount of single-use plastics in hospitals, as part of a package of measures in the NHS Long Term Plan to reduce the environmental impact of the health service.

Retailers operating in hospitals have committed to cut the use of avoidable plastics starting with straws and stirrers from April with cutlery, plates and cups phased out over the following 12 months.

The nationwide efforts will ramp up successful individual schemes including increased use of glass cups instead of plastic and installing water fountains, which have so far cut plastic use by hundreds of tonnes and freed up thousands of pounds to reinvest in local services.

NHS chief executive Simon Stevens has urged hospital trusts who have in-house catering to step up and match stores’ commitment by signing a pledge to support the moves to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the NHS.

The NHS bought at least 163 million plastic cups, 16 million pieces of plastic cutlery, 15 million straws and 2 million plastic stirrers last year.

If the NHS cut its use of catering plastic in half it could mean over 100 million fewer items each year end up polluting the oceans or in landfill.

Suppliers including WHSmith, Marks & Spencer, Boots, Greggs and OCS Group UKIME, along with NHS Supply Chain – the organisation which manages food and health products in England – have all confirmed they will accept the health service chief’s call to cut waste.

The NHS has also been at the forefront of reducing waste and its impact on air pollution, with the carbon footprint of the health and social care sector cut by 19% since 2007 despite a 27% increase in activity.

Between 2010 and 2017 health and care also reduced water consumption by 21%, equivalent to around 243,000 Olympic swimming pools.

Simon Stevens, NHS chief executive, said: “It’s right that the NHS and our suppliers should join the national campaign to turn the tide on plastic waste. Doing so will be good for our environment, for patients and for taxpayers who fund our NHS.

“We’re pleased that as a first step, major retailers operating in hospitals have committed to cut their plastics, starting with straws and stirrers, cutlery, plates and cups.”

The NHS has written to providers urging them to back the campaign, sign the pledge and curb plastic waste.

Ruth May, chief nursing officer for England at NHS England and NHS Improvement, said: “Across the NHS, nurses, midwives and other frontline staff are providing great leadership on environmental issues and championing sustainability where they work.

“Support from local NHS organisations to sign the pledge and cut use of catering plastics will need all NHS staff to take action in their own areas and encourage their employers to go further faster.”

Many parts of the NHS are already tackling the unnecessary use of these items:

  • Yorkshire Ambulance Services NHS Trust is saving around four tonnes of plastic waste a year after a campaign to remove plastic waste from the staff canteen. The trust replaced plastic milk bottles with glass, plastic cutlery with wood and plastic drinks bottles with cans and introduced a water refill point.
  • Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has removed more than half a million single-use plastic items from its canteens, including 227,000 pieces of cutlery and 231,180 cups.
  • The Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is saving £80,000 and has removed every year almost 2 million single-use plastic items, including cutlery and bowls.

Plastic items required for medical reasons are exempt from the pledge.

Helen Bird, of sustainability charity WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme), said: “It’s positive to see the NHS taking action to turn the tide on plastic waste, removing plastic items where they do not make sense for the environment, and looking for alternatives to materials which are not recyclable, like expanded polystyrene cups. It sends a strong message to the public and suppliers to the NHS; our throwaway culture will become a thing of the past.”

The drive to make hospitals healthier follows a successful NHS clampdown on sugary drinks, which saw hospital trusts meet and exceed a pledge to ensure just one in 10 drinks sold on their premises had added sugar.

The campaign has meant that more than 30 million teaspoons of sugar have been taken out of drinks sold in hospitals since July 2017, helping to improve the health of patients, staff and visitors.

The NHS Long Term Plan outlines a number of steps the NHS will be taking to reduce impact on the environment in other areas as well, including a shift to lower carbon inhalers and anaesthetic gases, as well as ensuring hospitals make progress in reducing waste, water and carbon to cut air pollution and save lives.

The NHS is also drawing up designs for new more environmentally friendly ambulances that could be used across the country and is working with developers, local councils and other partners to ensure new housing developments have health and wellbeing built in from the start.

The full list of suppliers who have signed up to the pledge is: WHSmith, Marks & Spencer, Boots, Greggs, OCS Group UKIME, Serco, Sodexo, NHS Supply Chain, Hospital Caterers Association, Hubbub and WRAP.

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