The Unsustainability of Hospital Waste

Natalie Doppelt




Lecturer in History and Sociology of Science

Project Summary

The goal of my research project, which was funded by the College Alumni Society Undergraduate Research Grant, was to evaluate the preexisting systems and sentiments that underly disposable personal protective equipment (PPE) use in the hospital space. I aimed to uncover specific nuances that have fortified the role of these products despite their negative environmental impact. To do so, I conducted several semi-structured interviews with hospital stakeholders such as practitioners, administrators, and PPE manufacturers. In doing so, I was able to uncover that disposable PPE continues to be used in hospitals because the lack of conversation, streamlined systems, and personal ownership pertaining to sustainability have prevented decision-makers from instituting change. PPE use underscores several deeply engrained US hospitals traditions such as cleanliness and risk aversion, which causes people to prioritize these factors over environmental impact. Given that there are no pre-established systems and leaders who can help to institute more sustainable options, hospitals are less inclined to take their own initiative. For example, despite many interview participants identifying hospital administrators as the primary role responsible for instituting sustainable practices in the hospital, these administrators appeared less likely to do so without a preexisting framework that they could build from and without goal alignment among the rest of their staff. Incentives lie elsewhere – especially considering COVID – allowing for medical waste to accumulate. This research was helpful because it helped me to understand how both hospital decision-makers and those who carry out decisions propagate wasteful behaviors. I will use this information for my senior thesis which aims to uncover why disposable PPE is so commonly used in the US despite its wastefulness. Furthermore, I learned a lot about conducting interviews ethically and responsibly, a skill I expect to use as I continue my research in the future.

To see my poster, please visit Penn Presents: