Human Survival Versus the Planet: Are We Prioritising One Over the Other?

It’s obvious that humans aren’t quite the same as all other species on our planet. In a world where animals adapt to suit the conditions given, we as humans go the other way and adapt nature to suit us.

Take heating and air conditioning, or antibiotics, as an example: instead of altering ourselves to conform to temperature variations or the prevalence of disease, the way every other species does, we instead work to curb the progress of factors which aren’t beneficial to us. Is this a genius move to take evolution down a new road, or does it do more harm than good?

This essentially boils down to a few key questions: can we substitute all which we destroy with technology? Are advances into human comforts restricting our resilience?

Image Credits: Tumisu

Take medicine for example. Of course, it’s brilliant and helpful and lifesaving, but are we reliant on quick fixes for our smaller problems? In 1999, the number of prescriptions issued in the US totalled 2.8 billion. In 2009 it was 3.9 billion. Whilst a tablet might help, or a course of antibiotics might genuinely be the solution, UNNECESSARY prescriptions are NOT.

‘The more antibiotics are used, the more quickly bacteria develop resistance’ , explains Dr. Steve Solomon, the director of the CDC’s office of Antimicrobial Resistance. The same article states that in the US, 23,000 people die each year from infections by drug resistant bacteria.

This highlights the importance of not using unnecessary antibiotics on humans, but there is also a significant impact on our environment. Wastewater plants are not designed to remove pharmaceuticals from water, but when we take antibiotics, not all the drug is taken in. The antibiotic compounds left in the environment can accumulate, harming microbes involved in nutrient cycles, climate regulation and breakdown of pesticides.

In fact, 65% of rivers and waterways found in 72 countries (taken as part of a study) are understood to be polluted with levels of antibiotics classed as unsafe. While medicine is obviously a wonderful advancement, measures should still be taken to make sure it’s advancing sustainably, otherwise it could create further problems that would need solving in the future.

The Access to Medicine Foundation published a report  showing that the 15 biggest pharmaceutical manufacturers do indeed have an environmental risk strategy to reduce the amount of antibiotics released into the environment during manufacture. However, only 8 of these manufacturers have an actual limit on the antibiotic release into wastewater.

This also feeds into the economy. In 20 years, the amount spent on US prescription drugs increased by $200 billion. Whilst social factors do play into this, one of the major influences behind this was unnecessary prescriptions!

Image Credits: mmmccc via PixaBay

Aside from unnecessary medication, the packaging and materials used also pose a threat to the planet. 2 million tons of medical/biohazardous waste is produced a year by medical facilities across the globe. This poses the obvious problem of the sheer amount of waste being produced; however, it is also extra dangerous as despite the input of ‘sanitary landfills’ for medical waste, there is still opportunity for leakage into the water supplies.

Up to a third of waste generated in hospitals is from those used in operations, which makes sense as using single-use materials prevents the spread of infection. However, this also produces a lot of waste. A company called Pfiedler has recently found out that over a fifth of this waste is actually recyclable. In fact, most of the plastic waste can be recycled by sterilisation, melting, and then reusing. As David Hutchins and Stuart White explain, ‘Although recycling has potential environmental and financial benefits, it is hampered by convenience, technology, lack of knowledge’.

Less than 10% of all NHS-produced waste is recycled, yet 30% of it consists of packaging which has a high potential for recycling. Several mechanisms of reducing waste produced in hospitals are available, from going paperless, buying medication in bulk, using unpackaged BUT UNUSED equipment (IF SAFE), to segregating recyclable material more efficiently.

‘Over the past 60 years, the NHS has set a worldwide example in free high quality healthcare at the point of contact. It should continue to set an example by developing and integrating a national medical waste management policy, in order to reduce its environmental impact’ write David Hutchins and Stuart White.

Our ability to alter nature to suit our needs has clearly been important in our survival thus far; however, if we don’t start doing so in a more sustainable fashion, could it also be a key component to our own downfall?

About the Author: Ani Talwar can be found at @Mischief.weavers, she wrote the book ‘ATRO- CITY THE FLOOD’ and cares passionately about sustainability.

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