International multi-service provider Elis has published the results of a comprehensive Life Cycle Analysis into the environmental impact of standard and high-performance reusable surgical textiles in relation to disposable counterparts.

The findings give weight to the industry’s argument that textiles are a far better use of resources than disposables and an important and welcome booster for textile care businesses.

The first UK-based study of its kind, the independent cradle-to-end-of-life (CTEOL) assessment analysed 19 impact categories, with Elis reusable gowns performing better than single-use alternatives.

Carried out in compliance with ISO14040, the research was conducted by the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures – a collaboration between the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment and The University of Sheffield.

A detailed analysis of carbon emissions at each stage of a gown’s lifecycle was undertaken. This examined gown production, including the transportation of materials and their manufacture, the distribution of products to and from hospitals, packaging use, washing processes and end-of-life disposal for the management of gowns which are no longer functional.

Overall, the global warming potential (carbon footprint) of an Elis reusable gown was found to be up to 69% lower than that of a disposable gown. It was also shown to generate just 16% to 22% of the mass of waste if used an optimal 75 times, with between 111g and 164g of waste saved for every reusable gown that is reprocessed. Over the annual usage in 2019 this equates to over 80 tons waste saved for SP gowns and an average of almost 15 tons for the HP gowns.

The results of the study were calculated for 30 uses for all gowns as a base case, with 75 uses compared as a more realistic usage scenario. Moving from 30 to 75 uses resulted in a 10% to 15% decrease in cumulative energy demand, a 20% – 22% decrease in water consumption, and a 12% – 19% decrease in global warming potential, highlighting the importance of ensuring gowns remain in circulation until they have achieved an optimum number of uses.

The savings when using a gown 75 times compared to a disposable gown are 37% to 66% for cumulative energy demand, 50% to 61% for water consumption, 40% to 69% for global warming potential and 78% to 84% for waste generated. Variations on savings are based on factors such as the type of gown (standard performance vs high performance) and distribution distances travelled.

Other key findings include:

• Carbon footprint – up to 69% less

• Energy consumption – up t0 66% less

• Waste saving – up to 84% less

• Water usage – up to 61% less

As these figures highlight, reusables perform significantly better in terms of resource efficiency, offering a more sustainable alternative to disposable surgical textiles.

Richard O’Brien, commercial director – Healthcare & Hospitality at Elis UK, comments: “While a number of studies have been carried out internationally comparing the impact of disposable vs reusable surgical textiles, it has not previously been possible to say with certainty whether the results accurately translate to products in the UK. This is due to subtle regional variations in aspects such as product materials, manufacturing and reprocessing techniques.

“We already know that, due to the introduction of highly engineered fabrics, today’s reusable products outperform disposable equivalents on durability, linting and infection control levels. The results from our UK-based study are now in, and show without doubt that reusable products have a lower impact on the environment than disposable alternatives, so isn’t it time for Trusts to rethink their approach to surgical textiles?

“The Life Cycle Analysis provides robust and quantitative evidence, and we hope this will enable customers to make informed and sustainable procurement decisions to support the NHS in its ambition to achieve net zero by 2045.”

Professor Rachael Rothman, Professor of Sustainable Chemical Engineering and Co-Director at the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield, comments: “Reusable surgical textiles provide a solution more in keeping with the circular economy model and, as the findings from our study show, this offers significant sustainability benefits over the linear nature of disposable counterparts, which are manufactured, used once and then discarded.”

Cumulative energy demand, water consumption, fossil resource scarcity, mineral resource scarcity, land use, human non-carcinogenic toxicity, human carcinogenic toxicity, marine ecotoxicity, freshwater ecotoxicity, terrestrial ecotoxicity, marine eutrophication, freshwater eutrophication, terrestrial acidification, ozone formation – terrestrial ecosystems, fine particulate matter formation, ozone formation – human health, ionizing radiation, stratospheric ozone depletion and global warming.