It’s not just about WASTE in healthcare, it’s also about TRASH

Written by Scott Christensen, MBA, Client Service Executive


According to a recent JAMA review, the cost of waste in the U.S. healthcare system ranges from $760 billion to $935 billion annually.[1] This waste is attributed to administration complexity, pricing, failure of care delivery, overtreatment or low-value care, fraud and abuse, and effectiveness of care coordination. But what about actual waste – the waste that hits the trash bin?

Ever wondered how much garbage we produce in the United States each year?
The numbers are staggering: we landfill more than 130 million tons[2] of waste each year. To put that in perspective, this is equivalent to landfilling more than 9.3 million giant dump truck loads of garbage. Hospitals play an important part and have a large waste footprint, producing about five million tons[3] of waste each year or roughly 29 lbs per patient bed per day.

What does surgery have to do with garbage?
Surgery departments can produce large amounts of physical waste with each procedure, providing an opportunity for surgical teams to reduce both their environmental footprint and be good stewards of financial resources.

Surgical custom packs are pre-manufactured kits which include necessary supplies for surgical cases – they save time by requiring less to be picked for the case cart and promote safety through the use of consistent, standardized products. If not reviewed regularly, custom packs can quickly become outdated as clinician preferences change and thus, become sources of waste in the operating room. Hospitals and health systems end up paying for this waste multiple times over between the price of custom packs, the cost of waste disposal, and the impact of waste on the environment.


So what can we do about it? Here are three tips to address custom pack waste:
1. Move to transparent pricing
Work with your custom pack providers to understand the pricing of your packs down to the individual line item. With this information in hand, your teams can make educated decisions about the tradeoffs between including items in the pack (but potentially wasting them) vs. the time savings of using custom packs. Initiate conversations with custom pack providers on packaging used and any value in reduced or alternative packaging to reduce waste.

2. Share the numbers and experiment with your team
Custom pack waste can be a vague, intangible concept for Operating Room staff. One way to spark their interest is to share how much money is spent on each item over the course of a year. For example, if we’re not using all those towels on each total knee over the course of a year, what would that be equivalent to in new equipment or other budget needs? To start this exercise with your team, have them collect unused items from their custom packs for one week and take note of what they end up with and how quickly the collection grows.

3. Celebrate success! Repeat at least annually
Environmental and financial stewardship go hand-in-hand. Simply sharing the numbers and outcomes behind custom pack waste reduction can help motivate your teams to find opportunities for savings. One Empiric Health partner produced over $250,000 of savings and diverted more than 15 tons of trash from landfills by removing unused items from custom packs. We also recommend conducting at least an annual review of your custom packs to ensure they are meeting your needs and are optimized to limit waste. Prioritize pack reviews by volume of use and be sure to review any physician-specific packs that may overlap with similar procedures.

How is your Surgery Department tackling waste in the OR? To continue the conversation, email us at or visit



[1] Bannow, Tara. Modern Healthcare; Waste accounts for one-quarter of healthcare spending. Published October 7, 2019.
[2] United States Environmental Protection Agency; National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling. Accessed November 6. 2019.
[3] Practice Greenhealth; Topics: Waste.  Accessed November 6, 2019.