Not so fantastic plastic

Alexis Percival profile picture

12 October 2019

Alexis Percival
Environmental and sustainability manager

Plastic. Plastic everywhere and not a drop is recycled…

The awareness of plastic pollution has become blatant to the world through programmes like Blue Planet and the War on Plastic, highlighting the issues of our waste disposal methods as well as our over consumption and use of plastics.


The NHS’ plastic addiction

It takes 21 days to break a habit. The UK’s NHS is the largest user of single-use plastics in Europe. Could we get the NHS to break its single-use plastic addiction in 21 days? It isn’t too much of a tall order if we managed to eradicate all of the plastic from our canteen in two weeks.

The NHS, like the whole of society, is heavily dependent on plastic. According to NHS Supply Chain, the percentage of plastic waste in NHS waste streams is significantly higher than other industries with plastic making up 22.7% total of all waste, with 13.7% being plastic film and 9% being hard plastic of this waste. The NHS disposes of around 133,000 tonnes of plastic each year with only about 5% of this plastic waste being currently recovered.

Where is the plastic hidden? It comes in the packaging, wrapped around delivery of products, product packaging and the plastic products themselves. In the NHS, we use plastic in our catering, building structures, and furniture as well as our clinical products and the packaging surrounding it. Plastic is everywhere.

Many plastics are considered necessary for infection prevention control due to the single-use properties, but some can be replaced with environmentally friendly, washable and biodegradable alternatives or completely eliminated altogether. Our plastic addiction needs some solutions in order to reduce our procurement and disposal costs.


How can we reduce plastic in the NHS?

Amounting to an excess of £9bn spent annually, the NHS has a large potential influence to the green economy and can dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that is procured and ultimately, disposed. By making clear plastic reduction choices, the NHS can help to reduce the costs associated with the disposal as well as the impact of waste being transferred across the world and polluting our oceans.

Recognising the NHS can go further on plastic reduction and elimination, NHS England and NHS Improvement have recently launched a single-use plastics reduction campaign and the NHS in Scotland have signed up to Waste and Resources Action Programme’s (WRAP) Plastic Pact.


How easy is it to reduce your NHS plastic?

At Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust, we launched our Pl’YAS’tic free strategy in 2018 to look at how we can reduce our plastic footprint. We started with one single product: the humble milk bottle. A simple swap from plastic to a glass milk bottle, delivered by the same milkman, meant that we reduced the amount of plastic bottles going in the bin by nearly 10,000 bottles a year, replacing them with reusable glass bottles. This quick and easy change sparked a plastic reduction programme looking at the alternatives for all the products in our staff canteen from plastic lined coffee cups, milk stirrers, salad pots, plastic drinks bottles, plastic cutlery to sandwich bags.

We started with a plastic audit and then assessed what we would replace the products with. We assessed the pros and cons of moving away from plastic to plastic alternatives such as ‘bio’plastics, vegware, bio degradable or recyclable packaging like paper or simply removing the need for packaging at all. Many items were replaced with reusable products like plates and metal cutlery. We introduced rentable cups through a ‘rent-a-mug’ scheme, charging £1 for a returnable reusable cup – keep it and reuse or use for your drink and return. We replaced plastic bottles with cans or introduced water refilling points.

The amount of plastic and financial savings that we have made has far exceeded what we were expecting:

  • We have to date saved nearly 200,000 pieces of plastic from the waste stream.
  • We have reduced the amount of plastic waste by approximately 4 tonnes a year, but still generate around 0.5 tonnes of waste from the changes to plastic free products.
  • Waste production has been reduced by at least one industrial waste bin per day.
  • We have saved over £5,000 in a year in procurement costs for plastic packaging.
  • We have tried to minimise the amount of waste that is generated through plastic replacement.
  • Our suppliers engaged with the task of plastic and waste reduction.
  • Cleaning staff do not have to empty the bins as many times over a day.


We are now progressing forwards to look at cleaning products, single-use wipes and plastic packaging. We are working with our paramedics to see how we can reduce plastic on the frontline. We are investigating alternatives to sharp boxes. If we can reduce plastic in one area, we can save on disposal costs. Let’s stop using plastic – it isn’t fantastic!

If you want to find out more information about what other trusts are doing, see below:


NHS England has written to trusts urging them to back the campaign to reduce plastic by signing the pledge. Read more information about the pledge on the NHS England website. You can also read more about Yorkshire Ambulance Service through a case study


About the author

Alexis Percival profile picture

Alexis Percival
Environmental and sustainability manager

Alexis is the Environmental and sustainability manager for Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust.