Salt Lake City-based humanitarian aid worker Ash Robinson has seen firsthand nearly every type of natural and man-made disaster found on earth, but what he saw one recent night at the county landfill gets to him most of all.
"I stood there and all I could do was watch as 27 full-size semitrucks dumped tons of perfectly good medical supplies into the garbage," Robinson said. "They threw away perfectly good, unexpired medical supplies everything from tongue depressors to gloves to syringes to bandages; basically anything that you'd see in your doctor's office."
Robinson, who heads Globus Relief's medical-equipment acquisition efforts, can't get the night out of his mind. "The good that those supplies that's 26 pallets of freight per semi the good they could have done around the world .. Well, it could be the saddest thing I've ever seen."
That's saying a lot. The nonprofit relief agency has sent him to Ghana, where clinics literally don't have a single bandage and use gauze, rinsing it as it's handed around from one wound to another. He's seen an infant intensive-care unit in the former Soviet Union where orphaned children with tuberculosis in cardboard boxes are in the same room with HIV-infected orphans "an absolute recipe for death," Robinson said.
He's seen a clinic in Romania where about 200 people were lined up for care, and the doctor, who was also the community's pastor, could only offer them a "go with God" blessing.
He's seen surgeons sewing up a patient's intestines with a standard sewing needle and nylon string "that we would use to tie up a package. I tell people when I'm on a (charity) trip that if I get sick or hurt somehow, leave me in the hotel room, don't take me to a hospital."
That night at the landfill, Robinson tried to talk the operator into letting him take some of the discarded supplies. Neither landfill rules nor federal regulations would permit it.
Neither people nor the environment should have to put up with the incredible amount of unnecessary waste, said several leaders of nonprofit aid providers nationwide who attended a conference hosted by Globus on Thursday and Friday in Salt Lake.
The charities attending the second annual meeting of Medical Supply Recovery Organizations at Globus headquarters concluded the conference by drafting a plan that they hope will not only unify such efforts among the charities but make the point with manufacturers and hospitals that current practices disregard both humanity and the environment.
"Essentially, we're just trying to come up with the best way to divert unused medical supplies from landfills here to clinics over there," said Dr. John C. Nelson, Globus president and chief executive officer.
The American Medical Association (AMA) estimates that at least $200 million in usable surplus medical supplies are discarded every year from U.S. operating rooms alone.
More than half of the contents in supply packs used in surgery here are routinely discarded, said Nelson, a former president of the AMA.
"Patient drapes, for example, that would have never touched a patient could instead be collected, resterilized and repackaged for clinics that are trying to help people but that literally have nothing," he said.
Even more supplies are wasted in the medical manufacture and distribution systems, he said, noting supplies that are opened but unused or have damaged packaging are thrown away largely because it isn't cost-efficient for hospitals to gather, sort and repackage them in accordance with American health-care standards.
Some people might ask, if a product isn't good enough for us, why should we think it's good enough for them?
"The fact is, most of it is just fine for us, too. It's just cheaper not to do it," said Sarah Monson, community-relations director for Globus. "What might be below our standard is an improvement by many factors in places where people have to bring their own sutures or have to be tied down during surgery in case they wake up."
Conference attendees said individual charities have been voluntarily collecting supplies for many years, but the approach has been fragmented, in part because of perceived and real fears of violating FDA regulations.
"When the U.S. has so much extra and other countries have so little, we must create a bridge to move supplies from where they are unneeded to places where the need is vital," Nelson said.
Robinson noted that many manufacturers and care providers do a great job of monitoring the flow and use of supplies and share them whenever possible."But I just wish some of the corporate and government leaders could see some of what I've seen," he said. "We are a country of waste, in a world of need."