Paper Waste in Health Care: Reducing Health and Environmental Impact


Dive into the scope of paper waste in the health care industry, its environmental toll, and strategies to reduce paper waste while balancing the needs of health care settings.

A worker is holding a red waste bag over a red waste bin.    (Adobe Stock 254565554 by arcyto)

A worker is holding a red waste bag over a red waste bin.

(Adobe Stock 254565554 by arcyto)

The efficient management of health care waste is essential for operations to run smoothly and for the environment's health. Paper waste is a significant portion of the different types of waste produced because of its extensive use in administrative, clinical, and hygiene functions.

Maintaining high hygiene standards in healthcare settings can be challenging, especially when dealing with various types of waste. However, the environmental impact of paper waste needs to be addressed. The consequences of large amounts of paper waste can include deforestation, increased landfill use, and increased greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s why this article discusses the extent of paper waste in the health care industry, its environmental impact, and strategies for reducing it.

The Scope of Paper Waste in the Healthcare Industry

Based on the research and findings of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the total generation of paper and paperboard waste in the US alone was 67.4 million tons in 2018.1 While its findings do not specify which industry produces the most waste, paper, and paperboard waste made up 23.1% of the total waste, the largest contribution for that year.

Also, in 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) noted that 85% of health care waste is non-hazardous or general waste, comparable to domestic waste, much of which includes paper and paper-based products.2 Typically, health care facilities and offices are major producers of paper waste, from cover patient records and disposable products to newspapers and packaging materials.

Lastly, according to the Healthcare Environmental Resource Center (HERC), health care facilities generate around 2 billion pounds of paper and cardboard waste annually in the US alone.3 This category of waste is the largest of the 5 billion pounds of waste of all types from the healthcare sector annually. Such a significant figure clearly illustrates the need for thorough health care waste management strategies.

Different types of nonhazardous waste can be produced depending on the type of health care facilities, such as hospitals, medical centers, private medical practices, veterinary clinics, clinical laboratories, or pharmacies. Based on the findings from the publication “Healthcare Waste—A Serious Problem for Global Health,” newspapers, packaging, containers, and paper are classified under nonhazardous waste.4

Effective waste management is essential for operational efficiency and environmental health in health care facilities and settings. Paper waste is part of nonhazardous waste, one of the main categories of garbage, since it’s used extensively for clinical, administrative, and hygienic purposes.

Reducing paper waste while upholding strict sanitary regulations is a significant task because paper waste has a negative environmental impact that includes increased landfill usage, deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions.

The Health and Environmental Risks

As mentioned by the WHO, 2 potentially hazardous microorganisms that might infect hospital patients, health care workers, and the public are present in health care waste. Drug-resistant microorganisms that escape from medical institutions and enter the environment could be another source of risk. Some of the adverse health and environmental outcomes from health care waste and its byproducts, such as paper waste, are air pollution and thermal injuries from the operation of medical waste incinerators.

Incinerating medical waste is not the only way we treat and dispose of healthcare waste. Other methods, such as recycling and landfilling, can indirectly introduce health risks by releasing harmful pathogens and toxic substances into the surrounding environment. Findings from the EPA back this up by stating that 45,970 tons of paper waste gets recycled, while 17,220 tons go to a landfill.1

The WHO explains in more detail how these waste disposal methods can continue to harm people and the environment.2 If landfills aren’t constructed properly, they can lead to the contamination of drinking, surface, and ground waters. Likewise, while waste incineration is widely practiced, inadequate incineration or the incineration of unsuitable materials releases pollutants into the air and generates ash residue.

The goal of healthcare systems is to save patients' lives and restore health. However, occasionally, unhygienic disposal practices have a negative impact on the health of communities and health care staff. That’s why strategies need to be in place to further prevent the negative outcomes of medical waste disposal.

Strategies for Paper Waste Reduction

Going forward, increased focus and diligence are needed in managing health care waste to prevent harmful health effects linked to inadequate practices, such as exposure to toxic substances and infectious agents.

Embrace digital solutions

Substituting digital solutions for conventional paper-based operations can significantly reduce paper waste. Making this transition to keeping digital records also promotes greater data security and accessibility and increases operational efficiency. With strong oversight, regulation, and training, this could lead to a significant reduction in paper waste.

Adopt recycling policies

Establishing and enforcing strict recycling policies can help reduce paper waste heading for landfills. According to the EPA, 45,970,000 tons of paper and paperboard waste was recycled in 2018. Over 67,390,000 tons of paper and paperboard waste were generated in the same year, so at least 68% of the paper waste has already been recycled.3 Recycling can also help reduce the cost of waste disposal in health care offices.

Source sustainable products

While it can be difficult to swap out paper products with alternatives because of sanitary regulations and practices, it should still be practiced when possible. For example, washable plates and cutlery should be used instead of disposable versions, and air dryers should be installed in bathrooms to reduce the use of paper towels.

If this isn’t feasible, another method is buying products made of recycled materials. One example is considering bamboo toilet paper over regular ones made out of tree fibers.5 This method of sustainable practice would require an intentional, collaborative effort between health care professionals and a desire to promote environmentally safe products and materials.

Train health care workers

While replacing paper-based processes with digital ones and replacing paper in general with sustainable alternatives is essential, training workers on proper waste management practices is also critical. Your workers and staff are an undervalued resource in waste reduction efforts.

Health care facilities can reduce paper waste by encouraging staff at all levels to understand the challenges. Frequent workshops, webinars, and training sessions should highlight the importance of reducing waste and how each team member can help.

A collaborative effort is required to promote meaningful changes in proper healthcare waste management. Implementing either one or all these effective strategies can help facilities operate efficiently and sustainably and change the future of waste.

Moving Forward

The health care industry faces a significant challenge in managing paper waste while maintaining operational efficiency and sanitary regulations. Health care facilities produce substantial paper waste from administrative, clinical, and hygiene functions. It’s essential to understand better how much waste is produced and how to adopt effective waste management strategies to mitigate environmental and health risks.

While universal, long-term change may require government support and commitment, actions can be taken immediately at a local level. Everyone in the health care industry must diligently avoid adverse health outcomes associated with poor waste management practices.


  1. Facts and Figures About Materials, Waste, and Recycling. United Environmental Agency. Published November 22, 2023. Accessed April 30, 2024.
  2. Health-care waste. World Health Organization. February 8, 2018. Accessed April 30, 2024.
  3. Paper Recycling and Waste Statistics. Healthcare Environmental Resource Center. Accessed April 30, 2024.
  4. Janik-Karpinska E, Brancaleoni R, Niemcewicz M, et al. Review of Current Healthcare Waste Management Methods and Their Effect on Global Health. Healthcare (Basel). 2023 Jan; 11(2): 242. doi:10.3390/ijerph191911967
  5. Reel Paper. Bamboo Toilet Paper 101: Everything You Need to Know. Reel Paper. Published May 27, 2020. Accessed April 30, 2024. .

Related Videos
Andrea Flinchum, 2024 president of the Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology, Inc (CBIC) explains the AL-CIP Certification at APIC24
Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology  (Image credit: APIC)
Lila Price, CRCST, CER, CHL, the interim manager for HealthTrust Workforce Solutions; and Dannie O. Smith III, BSc, CSPDT, CRCST, CHL, CIS, CER, founder of Surgicaltrey, LLC, and a central processing educator for Valley Health System
Jill Holdsworth, MS, CIC, FAPIC, CRCSR, NREMT, CHL, and Katie Belski, BSHCA, CRCST, CHL, CIS
Baby visiting a pediatric facility  (Adobe Stock 448959249 by
Antimicrobial Resistance (Adobe Stock unknown)
Anne Meneghetti, MD, speaking with Infection Control Today
Patient Safety: Infection Control Today's Trending Topic for March
Infection Control Today® (ICT®) talks with John Kimsey, vice president of processing optimization and customer success for Steris.
Related Content