The cost to the planet of your knee replacement

Once we’ve reached the age of 50, and given that we’re living longer, the prospect of having to replace certain parts of our bodies becomes real for many.

Not every body part copes well with older age, and that’s where medical science comes in, giving many a new lease on life with replacement hips and knees, for example.

Of course, before undergoing major surgery, individuals must consider the costs – monetary plus the mental and physical toll.

But should you also be considering the cost to the planet of having, for instance, a knee replaced?

The answer for most would be no, but a group of Pittsburgh University researchers has tackled the topic and come up with very interesting results.

Looking specifically at a total knee replacement, the researchers found the procedure creates a whopping 13 kilograms or more of waste. What’s more, half of that waste presents a biohazard and requires energy-intensive treatment for safe disposal.

The authors of the study, Environmental Sustainability in Orthopaedic Surgery, published by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, also looked at other medical procedures in terms of environmental cost.

They found that cataract surgery releases the equivalent of 181.8kg of carbon dioxide. An average car would need to drive more than 500kms to produce that much CO2.

Such startling revelations are not designed to make you feel guilty about saving your sight or improving your quality of life through a knee replacement. Rather, the study authors hope that quantifying the environmental costs will lead to more sustainable ways of achieving these improved health outcomes.

Co-authors Ian Engler and Andrew Curley, orthopaedic sports medicine fellows at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said they were inspired to do the research when they became aware of the part their specialty plays in climate change, and how little literature there was on the issue.

“While thousands of articles are published in the field of orthopaedic surgery each year, very few address sustainability,” said Dr Engler. “Given the immense impact of climate change, we believe that every field must consider their role in becoming more sustainable.”

As well as identifying some of the environmental problems, the authors also pinpointed potential solutions. Suggested methods to reduce the environmental impact of the operating room included proper selection of anaesthetic techniques that had a smaller carbon footprint, minimisation of single-use instruments, use of minimalist custom-designed surgical packs, proper separation of waste, and continuation or implementation of recycling protocols.

With a bit of luck, if and when you need a knee or hip replaced, the medical world will have come up with techniques that will improve your quality of life without harming the planet.

Also read: Knee surgery can have some surprising side-effects

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.
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