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Tackling Healthcare’s Plastic Waste: Think Before You Bluey

South Metropolitan Health Service (SMHS) incorporates Fiona Stanley, Fremantle and Rockingham Hospitals. Delivering health care to almost a quarter of Western Australia’s population, SMHS has initiated impressive workplace plastic reduction measures with a campaign embracing the simple message: ‘Think Before You Bluey’.

Bluey isn’t just the name of one of Australia’s favourite animated characters, or a larrikin name for people with red hair. It is also the name given to the disposable plastic-backed bed pads frequently  used in hospital and community settings. Blueys are a high-turnover product. Each year, around 75 million blueys underpads are discarded worldwide, contributing up to 1,950 tonnes of landfill waste.

To coincide with global Plastic Free July commitments in 2022, staff from SMHS kicked off their plan to reduce blueys and raise awareness of plastics in the workplace. 

“There is so much single-use plastic in the healthcare sector,” SMHS’s sustainability officer Bridget Egan said. “We decided it was time to address our bluey’s use, particularly the inappropriate and excessive use of blueys.”

From Surveys to Sustainable Practices

A workplace survey helped guide the campaign. “We started with a staff survey to understand when, how, and how many blueys were being used, and in what circumstances,” Bridget said. One finding was that whole packs of blueys were sometimes placed in a patient’s room and infection prevention protocols meant unused blueys couldn’t be repurposed.

The result of the survey was the ‘Think Before You Bluey’ campaign, which encourages staff to ask three questions before reaching for a bluey: Do I really need a bluey for this task? Do I need to use as many? Is there something else I can use instead?

Staff are encouraged to:

Refuse (don’t use a bluey at all); Reduce (the number used);

Reuse (clean packaging instead); or Swap (to another product more suitable for the job). These messages are reinforced in daily “huddles” – meetings that take place on wards to educate and inform staff. 

A simple change that demonstrates the Refuse-Reduce-Reuse-Swap message in action is that parents are now encouraged to use their own blankets on the scale instead of a bluey when their baby is being weighed in the clinic. 

“The campaign has  been really successful and people have embraced it because blueys are very visual,” Bridget said.

Exceeding targets

The State Rehabilitation Service Spinal Unit at Fiona Stanley Hospital, one of the highest users of blueys, set a 50 percent reduction target. Within three months, they had already reduced their use by 35 percent. “They are now well on track to meet their 50 percent target,” Bridget said.

Across the health service, reduction levels in the first nine months of the campaign are impressive. 

“The number of blueys ordered has dropped by 17 percent. That’s a total of 73,000 disposable blueys we avoided using in just 9 months,” Bridget said. 

Alongside the key ‘reduce’ message, a compostable version of the bluey (the greeny) is used in situations requiring three or more blueys.

Spreading green shoots 

The blueys campaign has ignited greater awareness of healthcare-related plastics. SMHS has set up a network of ‘Green Ambassadors’ who share sustainability news through a monthly newsletter.

“We are seeing ‘green teams’ being formed in many of our departments and wards,” Bridget said. “We want to spread green shoots throughout the organisation through these initiatives.”

“What ‘Think Before You Bluey’ has shown is that with the right information, simple messaging and a bit of encouragement, people are willing to embrace change for the benefit of the environment.”

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