How Medicine Becomes Trash: Healthcare Waste as Environmental Crisis

27 Feb 2024
12:00 pm - 1:00 pm


Event Type
Special Event

Jeremy A. Greene
William H. Welch Professor of Medicine and the History of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

The modern medical enterprise is distinctively wasteful.  This may seem to result inevitably from the hazardous nature of medical substances, whose infection risk, chemical toxicity, or radioactivity accordingly requires more extensive techniques of waste handling.  Yet only 15% of global healthcare wastes fit this specialized profile.  The remaining 85% are simply materials that have been built to be disposable rather than reusable:  a staggering volume of single-use items that emit toxins and carbon dioxide when incinerated, give off methane and other greenhouse gasses while decomposing in landfills, or, if they escape these two fates, float on the surface of the oceans.

It was not always this way.  In a relatively short period of time, we have naturalized the use of single-use masks, single-use surgical drapes, single-use plastic syringes, single-use surgical tools, and single-use diagnostic tests, all wrapped in multiple layers of single-use plastics—and then forgotten there was ever any alternative.  In this talk, Jeremy Greene traces the links between environmental history, the history of technology, and the outsized role that the global healthcare sector now plays in contributing to climate change and plastic waste.  Greene offers the recent crisis of COVID waste as a window into the broader infrastructure of engineered wastefulness in modern medicine and its differential effects across rich and poor nations on a global scale, and rich and poor neighborhoods on more local scales.  Only with attention to historical and social context, he argues, can we work to unseat medical waste as a natural category and reconsider it as the outcome of a set of value decisions we have made in the past, and can change in the future.

Jeremy A. Greene, MD, PhD, is the William H. Welch Professor of Medicine and the History of Medicine, Director of the Department of the History of Medicine, co-Editor-in-Chief of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, and founding Director of the Center for Medical Humanities and Social Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he also practices internal medicine at a community health center in East Baltimore. In addition to scholarly publications, he is a regular contributor to clinical and public health journals including The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, and The American Journal of Public Health, and his work has appeared in popular publications including Slate, Forbes, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post. In his several books, Prescribing by Numbers: Drugs and the Definition of Disease (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), Generic: The Unbranding of Modern Medicine(Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), and The Doctor Who Wasn’t There: Technology, History, and the Limits of Telehealth (University of Chicago Press, 2022). Greene’s research explores how the complex social, cultural, and economic histories of medical technologies impact present day medical knowledge and clinical practice. Greene’s work has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health / National Library of Medicine, the Norwegian Research Council, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and the Greenwall Foundation. His current research project, Syringe Tides: Disposable Technology and the Making of Medical Waste is supported by a 2023 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship

Please register for the Zoom Webinar.

This event is sponsored by CSTMS.
Additional sponsorship comes from:  Berkeley Center for Social Medicine • CSTMS • Institute of Societal Issues

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