Healthcare systems in the United States have increasingly turned toward the use of disposable medical equipment in an attempt to save time, lower costs, and reduce the transmission of infections. However, the use of disposable instruments is associated with increased solid waste production and may have negative impacts on the environment, such as increased greenhouse gas emissions.
The purpose of this study was to inform this discussion; we applied life cycle assessment methods to evaluate the carbon footprints of 3 vaginal specula: a single-use acrylic model and 2 reusable stainless steel models.
The functional unit of the study was defined as the completion of 20 gynecologic examinations by either type of speculum. The greenhouse gas emissions (eg, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide) across all life cycle stages, which includes material production and manufacturing, transportation, use and reprocessing, and end-of-life, were analyzed with the use of SimaPro life cycle assessment software and converted into carbon dioxide equivalents.
The reusable stainless steel grade 304 speculum was found to have a lesser carbon footprint over multiple model scenarios (different reprocessing techniques, autoclave loading/efficiency, and number of uses) than either the reusable stainless steel grade 316 or the disposable acrylic specula. The material production and manufacturing phase contributed most heavily to the total life cycle carbon footprint of the acrylic speculum, whereas the use and reprocessing phase contributed most to the carbon footprints of both stainless steel specula.
The use of disposable vaginal specula is associated with increased greenhouse gas equivalents compared with reusable alternatives with no significant difference in clinical utility. These findings can be used to inform decision-making by healthcare systems, because they weigh a wide range of considerations in making final purchase decisions; similar analytic methods can and should be applied to other components of health systems’ waste streams.