As a teenager I decided that opting to become an organ donor made sense. It enabled me to help others even beyond my own life, and it seems like a no brainer to help people by letting them use what I no longer need, even if that is my heart or lungs. In the UK there are currently more than 21 million people who have made the same choice as me and are registered as organ donors, and 2017 saw more people saved by organ donation than ever before. There are still around 6,000 people who are still on the transplant waiting list so I would encourage anyone who is considering becoming a donor to look into it here, but beyond that, I recently learned that there’s even more we can do to help those who may be in medical need. Actions that can save lives, and also reduce needless waste in our world, without really requiring much of us.

In recent months I was virtually introduced to Milan Mahesh, a high school student in Pennsylvania. One of my dad’s oldest friends (Hi Bill, because I know you’ll read this) is a medical professional in the US, and he introduced me to Milan’s work after seeing the crossovers between sustainability, medical advances and helping those in need.

Milan’s passion is medical recycling; something you’ve probably never heard of, but which holds the potential to help a lot of people.

Most of us know about organ donation, but medical recycling focuses on the reuse of medical devices and equipment that often needlessly end up in landfill, or stashed in a garage somewhere out of sight for years. Milan’s mission is to promote a more socially conscious attitude to healthcare; helping others by making sure this equipment can be provided to low-income, at risk individuals both locally and worldwide. From 2016 onwards Milan has volunteered with physicians and healthcare administrators to promote recycling, and has personally collected over 75 devices from funeral homes and crematoriums to donate to poorer patients.

Now I get it, maybe this sounds a bit weird. But that’s only because this very simple idea has not been made a cultural norm, even though logically it really should be. As medical science advances opportunities to save lives increase as newer devices, technologies and procedures become readily available. People with heart problems don’t always need transplants thanks to devices like pacemakers and defibrillators, however these technologies are expensive and often restricted to those with the privilege to afford them, leaving a significant number of people without these vital options. By introducing the reuse and donation of these devices to others once one person is done with them, costs decrease and more people can access a variety of life saving, and life improving, equipment.

As well as pacemakers and defibrillators, other items that can be reused include wheelchairs, canes, walkers, hospital beds, lift chairs, shower tubs, potty chairs or prosthetic limbs. Just like old phones and laptops can be purchased used or refurbished, so perfectly functioning medical equipment can be donated and reused for much longer than it currently is before ending up in landfill. If healthcare institutions can implement a standardised system where these items can be cleaned, sterilised, refurbished, and certified by professionals then they can be very easily donated to people in need. Just like organ donation, device donation is another way to live beyond your own life and help others.

After carrying out research Milan found that 90% of healthcare administrators personally support medical recycling and 55% think that medical recycling aligns with their organisation’s core mission, but only a little over 9% of them are currently willing to implement a formal medical recycling program in their organisations. This is the gap that Milan is trying to bridge, through increasing awareness and promoting acceptance of these types of schemes.

This lack of willingness seems to mainly be around two areas: the worry of malpractice, or potential infection. In fact there is nothing illegal about medical recycling, there’s just almost no public awareness of it, which can lead people to think it may be sketchy when it isn’t. At the same time the worry of devices being not properly sterilised is understandable; some people feel uncomfortable just with the idea of buying secondhand clothes that have been worn by someone else. The reality, however, is that many items in medicine are already being used over and over again. It’s not like in every operation the surgeon uses a new set of tools, because there are adequate measures in place to sterilise and clean these items. These measures can also be applied to medical devices, meaning that as long as there is a standardised procedure in place, there’s nothing to worry about. It just requires a little perspective shift.

What can we do?

Firsly don’t worry, we don’t need everyone to suddenly start going to their local funeral homes to collect pacemakers. Milan’s goals are twofold:

  • Increase awareness and acceptance of medical recycling (including understanding that it’s totally legal and safe)
  • Create a formal, standardised process to disinfect, refurbish and recertify medical devices and equipment that can be implemented

The first is where you can get most involved. By discussing medical recycling and spreading the word, you can help with normalising the idea. If you do know someone using medical devices such as pacemakers, you can talk to them about if they would wish for these items to be recycled (in the same way that you may discuss organ donation), and make sure that these devices aren’t buried or destroyed in future. If you know people with medical equipment that they already aren’t using any more, for example old wheelchairs or canes, you can also make sure these don’t end up being thrown away or stored away to never be used again, as someone near you may well be able to use them. You can contact Milan via the medical recycling website, where you can access information on how best to recycle medical equipment in your area, and receive advice on how best to spread the word where you are.

Like organ donation medical recycling is an important and noble choice, which has widespread support of communities and healthcare personnel that know about it. It has the potential to help innumerable people who can’t afford the healthcare solutions that should be available to them (which is in itself a larger systemic issue), and it keeps perfectly well functioning equipment out of landfill and in use, promoting a healthy circular economy. It’s a system that benefits everyone, as well as the planet.

While large scale, standardised implementation would involve a lot of work, including addressing legal and safety concerns thoroughly, if the public support is overwhelmingly there, it can be done. And, once implemented, it has the power to change lives across the world. All we need to do is show that the support is there for it.