Sustainable Medical Scrubs – The Green Side of Healthcare

The Green Side of Healthcare: Choosing Renewable Solutions for Sustainable Medical Scrubs

By Steven John Cumper

The clothing industry, especially so-called ‘fast fashionaccounts for 10% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Combined with its significant use of water and other resources, the industry has a larger environmental impact than international shipping and flights combined.

Medical scrubs may not strictly be considered fashion. However, in many cases, medical professionals tend not to use their scrubs for very long, instead opting to replace them frequently and effectively treat them like fast fashion. When that happens, medical scrubs become part of the environmental problems caused by the clothing industry.

Sustainable alternatives for medical scrubs are becoming more readily available. They are just as functional, if not better; they last longer, protect the environment, and save you money in the long term. Here is a closer look at the differences between regular and sustainable medical scrubs, alongside tips to help you choose the best option.

Why Sustainability Matters in the Healthcare Industry

The healthcare industry is one of the United State’s biggest polluters. Carbon dioxide emissions are one side of the issue, but the industry also has a sizable waste problem. According to the American Medical Association (AMA), caring for patients produces around six million tons of waste every year. Overall, U.S. healthcare facilities produce 14,000 tons of plastic daily.

Plastics are among the biggest culprits in this area. They make up between 20 and 25% of the waste produced in the sector. At the same time, the use of plastic has also helped revolutionize medical care. Look around any hospital in the United States today, and you will see plastics used in intravenous bags, catheters, syringes, test kits, and gloves. Arguably, plastics are critical in these areas as they allow medical professionals to store medications safely (IV bags) or keep equipment sterile (syringes, test kits, and others).

Plastics used in gloves allow medical staff to protect themselves and their patients from germs and reduce the risk of disease transmission. Arguably, all these plastics are essential, and few suitable alternatives to plastic would be equally cost-effective, easy to produce, and simple to sterilize.

Still, considering that over 90% of the plastic waste produced in the United States does not get recycled, including those plastics used in the medical industry, it is obvious to see the need for change.

The Environmental Impact of Medical Scrubs

But what about the environmental impact of medical scrubs? Picture this scenario: many of the scrub suits used in American operating rooms today are disposable. That means they may be thrown out after as little as one use. In one mid-sized hospital, this could be hundreds of scrubs every day.

New scrubs may then be dispensed from handy machines in staff changing rooms, all packaged in individual plastic wrappers. Again, using our mid-sized hospital example, that would mean hundreds of plastic bags wasted every day. As Dr. Patrick Codd says on his blog, the healthcare industry as a whole can do better.

Before we take a look at the alternatives, there is another environmental aspect of medical scrubs to consider. Those scrubs that are washable are often made from fibers that are based on plastics. Whenever they are washed, microplastics enter our water supply and the wider environment.

Over the lifespan of a set of washable scrubs, the amount of microplastic pollution created becomes significant. Still, the need for daily washing remains as medical professionals may come into contact with viruses, bacteria, bodily fluids, and other substances that need to be removed before scrubs can be used again.

When medical professionals and hospital operators are trying to assess and reduce the environmental impact of medical scrubs, they need to consider and balance several factors at the same time:

  • Disposable scrubs are creating significant waste.
  • Do scrubs need to be dispensed in plastic bags?
  • What are reusable scrubs made of, and how does that affect the microplastic level of our waters?
  • How affordable are sustainable medical scrubs either for healthcare facilities or individual professionals?

Trying to reconcile and align these issues requires an innovative approach and a deeper understanding of sustainable materials available to the medical profession.

Sustainable Fabric Choices for Medical Scrubs

In order to be sustainable, medical scrubs need to be reusable. But which material should they be made of to reduce the potential of microplastics entering our waterways? Exploring sustainable and ethical options for scrubs becomes crucial in this context. There are several options available to consumers and manufacturers right now.

As none of these options are perfect, here is a look at the advantages and disadvantages of four of them.

1. Cotton Scrubs

Cotton is the most commonly used material for reusable, sustainable medical scrubs. It’s natural, organic, and renewable, all at the same time. However, like the other materials, it’s not perfect. Cotton plants require a lot of water to thrive and produce cotton. On average, producing one cotton t-shirt takes around 2,700 liters of water. That would be enough drinking water to supply one person for 900 days.

Plus, growing cotton almost inevitably involves various pesticides. Those are not only detrimental to the environment, but they can also lead to allergies in the wearer. So, what about the alternatives?

2. Bamboo Scrubs

Bamboo has become one of the most popular alternatives to cotton in clothing production, including the manufacturing of sustainable medical scrubs. Bamboo grows faster than cotton, and clothing produced from it is highly durable and hard-wearing – ideal qualities for scrub suits.

Like cotton, though, bamboo has its downsides. The most obvious of those is the need to use toxic chemicals to create a usable material from raw bamboo.

3. Tencel or Lyocell

Tencel or Lyocell is made from regenerated cellulose. It is a semi-synthetic fiber that is both comfortable to wear and sustainable. The production process does not require toxic chemicals either, making this material more environmentally friendly than bamboo.

Is there a catch? Yes, there is. For the moment, Tencel fabrics cannot be produced as cost-effectively as cotton or bamboo alternatives. However, as clothing and manufacturing technologies evolve, this may change.

4. Recycled Polyester

Think of recycled polyester as a form of recycled water bottles. The bottles are processed and turned into a fabric that is both comfortable and hard-wearing. Those scrubs may not be organic or renewable, but by buying clothes made from recycled polyester, medical professionals and their employers minimize the number of plastic bottles heading to landfill.

Innovative Manufacturing Techniques for Sustainable Medical Scrubs

How can clothing manufacturers become more sustainable? To answer this question, it is worth looking at what we understand by talking about sustainability. Aside from the environmental aspect of making scrubs, there are also ethical considerations.

Ethical manufacturing involves paying workers a living wage and offering reasonable working conditions. These conditions may vary from location to location, but in many places, they will involve no more than seven or eight working hours in a day with regular breaks. Workers will also be protected from excessive noise, dust, and other pollutants.

Innovative manufacturers that commit to sustainability check their entire supply chain to ensure they are not only sourcing sustainable materials but also contributing to the long-term development of their communities.

As the demand for sustainable products has grown, manufacturers have made greater efforts to recycle materials that were previously deemed to be single-use only. Plastic bottles are one of the most high-profile materials in this respect. To transform these bottles into yarn, they are first dried and cleaned. Caps also need to be removed before the bottle is shredded into tiny flakes.

Next, those flakes will be melted and squeezed into yarn that can then be spun into almost any shape or form of clothing. The actual process is similar to the production of new synthetic fibers. Recycled polyester is not only used in scrubs manufacturing but in the wider textile industry as well.

The Future of Sustainable Medical Scrubs: Embracing Change in Healthcare

The healthcare industry is changing. Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning are changing the way doctors diagnose their patients. Patient records are no longer kept in the form of paper charts. Instead, software applications allow doctors to share information safely and assess patients based on more thorough medical information. Minimally-invasive procedures are revolutionizing surgery.

With all that innovation, why stop at improving the environmental footprint of the industry, including the wasteful use of scrubs? Healthcare facilities looking to minimize their environmental impact need to consider offering their teams access to reusable, sustainable medical scrubs.

With several options for materials, cuts, and specifications like pockets and accessories, there are plenty of choices to meet the demands of any medical specialty. For a truly sustainable solution, healthcare providers and medical professionals should add ethical criteria to their considerations. Responsible manufacturers of medical scrubs will be happy to give insight into their supply chain and allow their clients to make the best possible choice for their staff and the environment.

Profile picture of Steven John Cumper, who has designed Sustainable Medical Scrubs

Author Bio:

Steven John Cumper, B.App.Sc. (Osteo.), M.Ost., is a businessman with a strong background in biomedical science and osteopathic medicine. He founded Medshop while studying at RMIT University in Australia, expanding its reach to markets in Papua New Guinea, Singapore, and Malaysia. In September 2021, the Bunzl Group acquired a majority stake in Medshop, but Cumper remains involved as the Managing Director (Medshop Group). His journey from Zimbabwe to the UK and Australia reflects his dedication to academia and entrepreneurship, combining diverse knowledge and experience.