Low-emission ambulances and LED lighting: The NHS Long Term Plan’s key sustainability measures

The 136-page deal includes several measures to make the NHS less carbon-intensive and more resource-efficient

Policymakers, NHS staff and members of the general public alike have been eagerly awaiting the publication of the Government’s 10-year plan for the Service, after Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed last year that the body would receive an extra £20bn of funding annually from 2019.

Published on Monday (7 November), the 136-page Plan outlines a string of funding increases for GPs, mental health awareness and community care, as well as measures to recruit staff from overseas after Brexit.

But it also includes a number of sustainability commitments surrounding low-carbon transport, energy efficiency and waste reduction, as the NHS strives to meet an overarching goal of reducing its carbon footprint by one-third by 2020, against a 2007 baseline.

Here, edie outlines four of the key sustainability measures outlined in the ten-year plan.

1) Energy-efficient buildings

The NHS estate in England has a floor area that would cover the City of London ten times over, including 6.9 million hectares of land and primary care buildings with a total floor space of 28.4 million square metres.

With heat and power for buildings currently accounting for 40% of national energy usage – and with the Government recently unveiling plans to halve building energy use and emissions by 2030 – it comes as no surprise that the Service’s Long Term Plan includes measures for greener and more energy-efficient properties.

The Plan promises that the NHS will “dispose” of “unnecessary” land, buildings and equipment in a bid to reduce its carbon footprint and operating costs, reinvesting money generated through the sale of these assets into green housing for NHS staff.

It also confirms that a “widespread” programme to install energy-efficient technologies, including LED lighting and “smart” energy management systems, will begin within the next 12 months.

The document additionally highlights the impact that building improvements have had in driving carbon reductions to date. The carbon footprint of the UK’s health and social care sector has decreased by 19% since 2007, despite a 27% increase in activity, it states.

2) Plastic waste reduction

2018 was undeniably the year of plastics action. Amid increasing consumer pressures for plastic-free products and packaging, the UK’s business community moved to phase-out items such as strawsdrinks stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds at a breakneck pace.  

The Government, meanwhile, launched consultations into potential policy changes such as increased charges for single-use carrier bags, a nationwide deposit return scheme for plastic bottles and a ban on the sale of plastic straws.

The Long Term Plan extends this plastic phase-out to the NHS, promising a reduction in the waste produced by the body’s use of consumables such as rubber gloves, plastic medicine pots and flexible packaging for tablets and surgical instruments, while maintaining current levels of sanitation.

In order to do this, the Government will set up a new centralised NHS procurement organisation, called Supply Chain Coordination Limited (SCCL). With the NHS spending more than £6bn per year on consumables for hospitals, the Plan states that this organisation will help the body to “use its purchasing power” to deliver sustainable, affordable items to patients.

The document also reveals that the NHS, which generated 590,000 tonnes of waste in 2017, is currently diverting 85% of its waste outputs from landfill.

Nonetheless, the Plan does not contain a time-specific numeric target for waste – plastic or otherwise.

3) Low-emission ambulances

If the NHS is to achieve a 34% reduction in its carbon emissions by 2020, rising to 51% by 2030, as specified by the Climate Change Act, the body will need to decarbonise its vehicles as well as its buildings.

Indeed, NHS patient and staff travel is believed to have accounted for 3.5% of all miles travelled by road in England in 2017.

The Plan, therefore, includes a new commitment to reduce greenhouse gases and air pollutants – including CO2 – produced by the NHS fleet by 2024. The pledge will apply to all vehicles within the fleet, including ambulances, motorcycles and cars.

The Government has also vowed to reduce the number of business miles travelled by the fleet by 20%, by the same deadline. Services such as ‘virtual’ appointments for patients and Skype meetings for staff will be rolled out to help deliver this reduction.

The Plan states that while national action to reduce the UK’s air pollution levels – which have been at illegally high levels in most urban areas in the UK since 2010 – is an issue “for Government to lead”, the NHS will “work to reduce air pollution from all sources” under its control.

4) Medicine waste avoidance

The NHS spends around £16bn each year on medicines, but Government research has found that around half of patients currently fail to take their medication correctly – an issue which has resulted in an as-yet unmeasured waste mountain. And with 10% of hospital admissions among those aged 65 and over due to medicine misuse, the issue is a social problem as well as an environmental one.

In response to the issue, the Plan outlines measures to end the over-prescription of “medicines and items which are readily available over the counter”, including paracetamol, aspirin and medicated bandages.

This will save the NHS £200m per year – a figure which will be re-invested in the research and development of innovative medicines.

The Plan additionally confirms that the NHS is working to develop low-carbon alternatives to the inhalers and anaesthetic equipment it currently uses. These improvements could reduce the Service’s total carbon footprint by 6%, the document claims.

Sarah George

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