A midwife-led intervention at one of Australia’s largest maternity hospitals has resulted in a 71 per cent decrease in clinical waste and a 48 per cent reduction in waste management costs.

That’s good news for the healthcare sector, one of the leading contributors to waste production and carbon emissions globally.

According to state health department estimates, Victoria’s public health system produced 42,000 tonnes of solid waste in 2010-11.

Greater use of single-use products during the Covid-19 pandemic means those figures are now much higher.

“Waste disposal is a significant cost to healthcare organisations and incorrect waste segregation, like putting unrecyclable items in recycling bins, can increase that cost,” said Linda Sweet, from Deakin’s Institute for Health Transformation and chair in midwifery at Western Health.

Professor Sweet led the project with support from the institute’s Dr Vidanka Vasilevski and a team of midwives at Western Health.

“We wanted to understand if a midwife-led intervention on improving waste management in a maternity hospital could help increase staff knowledge and reduce waste and waste management-related costs,” she said.

The Green Maternity Intervention, led by midwives at Western Health’s Joan Kirner Women’s and Children’s Hospital, involved midwife “sustainability champions”, staff education and incentives to get midwives involved.

“Staff had identified inaccurate waste segregation as a problem that leads to greater waste management costs and negative environmental impact,” Dr Vasilevski said.

“Although midwives value sustainable healthcare practices, factors such as high patient turnover, lack of time, inconvenient bin locations and a perception that all waste is clinical can make it difficult to ‘walk the talk’.”

Prof. Sweet said staff were surveyed on their waste management knowledge and attitudes before and after the intervention, with a waste audit conducted at the beginning, middle and end of the project.

The waste audit data showed reductions in clinical waste and that waste segregation improved from the beginning to the end of the intervention, resulting in a reduction in waste management costs.

Prof Sweet said this was good for the health service and the environment.

“When tailored education is provided, effective waste segregation increases. Our findings suggest that targeted education about what items go into what bin is useful, and that the maternity staff found the instructional signage helpful,” she said.

“Having dedicated sustainability champions among the clinical staff – with allocated time to take on this role – was also critical in encouraging behavioural change.

“With appropriate support, midwives can drive behavioural changes that can reduce the carbon footprint of maternity wards.”

Western Health midwife and nurse Jessica Huynh said feedback from midwives involved in the intervention had been very positive.

“Not everything we do in healthcare requires single-use items and it’s better to reuse where you can,” she said.

“One of our midwives commented that she hadn’t realised we could have a more sustainable birthing room because everything is mostly single use, besides the birthing equipment, so seeing reusable tubing for nitrous oxide was educational for her.”

Learn more

Listen: Decarbonising our healthcare, a prescription for action

Read: Hope is not a method – we must act now to decarbonise the health sector