VetScript Editor's pick: December 2019 - Waste Not

While the Government prepares to target six of the most problematic waste streams in New Zealand, some veterinary clinics are already focusing on reducing their rubbish. Naomi Arnold finds out what the Government’s changes might mean, and what a more sustainable veterinary practice looks like.

When it comes to sustainability, just one person can make a difference. That was the biggest thing that CeeJay Spiller learned when she started the 20-person Green Team at Massey University’s School of Veterinary Science three months ago.

The veterinary anaesthetic technician discovered that once she began focusing on a more sustainable lifestyle in her personal life, her attention naturally turned to the waste created during veterinary practice. “For a long time I was able to compartmentalise the waste that we have at work, but after a while it occurred to me that things needed to change,” she says.

Earlier this year she emailed everyone in the veterinary school and discovered many others were feeling the same way. “I got an incredible amount of replies. There were lots simmering under the surface and it required someone to be like, ‘Hey guys, shall we actually do this?’”

The Green Team has since changed small things in the clinic, such as using rechargeable batteries and switching to compostable dog poo bags and water cooler cups. Recently they began two larger initiatives: a waste audit to help them prioritise what to focus on, and a programme to divert all organic waste from landfill to Palmerston North City Council’s anaerobic digester.

“It eats organic waste and spits out power, and that’s going to help put us into a carbon-positive situation,” CeeJay says. Best of all is that their efforts will filter down to the veterinarians of the future. “We can start infiltrating their education and sending out veterinary students who are clinically skilled and knowledgeable, but also thoughtful about sustainability.”

She also hopes they’ll be able to create a template that other clinics can use. “The biggest outcome for me from all of this is [finding out] that one small person can make a huge difference.”

Other clinics around New Zealand are focusing on reducing their waste, too. At The Vet Centre in Maungaturoto, Steph Downey says the clinic has become very environmentally conscious. The team stopped giving out plastic bags to customers some time ago, instead using cardboard boxes from deliveries.

“We encourage clients to bring back their old pill pottles so that we can reuse them or refill them for repeat prescriptions instead of handing out new ones,” she says. “We use compostable bin-liners and have a pig scrap bucket to reduce our rubbish load destined for the landfill, as well as recycling at the local transfer station in general.”

South Wairarapa Veterinary Services companion animal veterinarian Jane Ough says she and her colleagues recognised the massive waste stream veterinary work generates, and decided to do something to reduce it (see sidebar). As well as cut down on rubbish, they’ve seen cost savings.

“It’s really helped with collegiality and a sense of teamwork, and it’s just great to do something positive, to feel like you’ve got some hope,” Jane says. “We just chip away at it, and it snowballs; the more we notice something else that we can do, the more we think of other things. One veterinarian has started running to work to reduce his carbon footprint.”

One of their targets is using 44-gallon drums of product for refillable containers, although space is an issue. Another is to stock only New Zealand-made pet food to reduce food miles. They also want the business to invest in electric vehicles powered by rooftop solar energy, which would also provide the clinic with power. Rural practices can use AgRecovery for the safe disposal of unwanted agrichemicals, and to recycle empty containers, drums and intermediate bulk containers.

“Solar power is a perfect fit for the business as most energy is used while the sun is generating it,” Jane says, adding that solarcity leases and maintains the equipment at fixed cost for 20 years so no capital investment is needed. Looking for ideas? The UK-based Zero Waste Veterinary Facebook page is a good place to start. Launched in April 2018 by a veterinary nurse, it has nearly 3,000 followers and posts everything from requests for sources of ‘funky’ scrubs to links for articles such as ‘Can medical care exist without plastic?’. It celebrates practices that are doing their bit, and lists practical, easy-to-implement changes.

However far along the waste-minimisation journey your practice is, it’s likely that some form of sustainability will be required to be implemented in the future. The Government is currently looking to declare six troublesome product groups ‘priority products’, as they cause so much environmental harm at the end of their lives. It’s also designing ministerial guidelines for accredited schemes to deal with them.

Two of those waste streams are of particular interest to veterinary practice: agrichemicals and their containers, including veterinary medicines, syringes, tubes and flexible bags, and their packaging; and refrigerants and greenhouse gases. (The others are tyres, electrical and electronic waste, farm plastics, and general packaging.)

The NZVA recently made a submission on the proposals, and the NZVA’s Veterinary Manager (Large Animal) Ash Keown says it’s asking for more information about it.

But it’s difficult to disagree with the principles.

“We’re currently part of a linear economy where we make stuff, use it and chuck it away,” Ash says. “These proposals are about transitioning into a circular economy where we make stuff, use it, then return it in terms of recycling, repurposing or reusing. Or if it’s a biological material, make it, use it and it gets composted or turned into something that enriches the world.”

He says that although the NZVA is generally supportive of the scheme, it raises questions for veterinary businesses. “We said [in our submission] that it’s good to make changes that are beneficial for the world and we should be looking to reduce our waste and impact. But we acknowledge there could potentially be impacts on veterinary practices and businesses, and we need to get a bit of clarification around those.”

When it comes to containers and packaging, waste is currently a mixture of biohazard and general rubbish. A future scheme might mean placing packaging into specific receptacles that are sent somewhere for recycling or reuse.

“It’s potentially a big change in how veterinarians use, consider and dispose of packaging materials,” he says. And there are unanswered questions about what to do with leftover veterinary medicines and unknown flow-on effects, such as whether triple-rinsing agrichemical containers for reuse locally could lead to an accumulation of chemicals in soils and waterways.

Anaesthetic gases are a particularly interesting environmental problem. Anaesthetics such as the commonly used isoflurane, as well as desflurane and sevoflurane, are greenhouse gases. Of the three, isoflurane is in the middle of offenders in terms of its contribution to the greenhouse effect and persistence in the atmosphere.

There has been human healthcare modelling of their contribution to climate challenges, which has found anaesthetic gases contribute around five percent of the total carbon emissions of acute healthcare facilities in the UK’s National Health Service.

In veterinary medicine, waste gases are generally vented into the atmosphere and many patients are too small to withstand the increased air resistance with rebreathing circuits, which use less product. Waste gas capture systems are still only an emerging technology.

“If we start having to do something about waste gases, that will pose significant changes to how we presently operate,” Ash says. “We’re not saying it’s a bad thing – we should support changes that are better for the world – but we need to get an understanding of it and what’s possible, practical and affordable.”

Ash says everyone agrees it’s good to do better. Now it just comes down to how to achieve that. “That is going to be the really interesting part of the future.”


Gibbens S. Can medical care exist without plastic? National Geographic, 4 Oct 2019. Accessed 23 October at can-medical-care-exist-without-plastic