Health care: from polluter to environmental protector

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As Earth Day brings focus to environmental issues, let’s turn our attention to the unique roles and responsibilities of the health care industry. As care providers, we increasingly must treat illnesses influenced by climate change; if you venture into any local park or even your backyard, for example, you’re probably familiar with the rising threat of Lyme disease. As an industry, however, we must also confront the fact that our own operations historically have been notorious polluters.  

Michael Waller

The health care industry represents 18 percent of the U.S. economy and generates 10 percent of the nation’s carbon emissions. Globally, energy production accounts for 72 percent of greenhouse gas emission—and hospitals by necessity use a lot of energy. They’re open around the clock 365 days a year, in buildings that need heating and cooling. To care for patients, they constantly run energy-intensive medical and sterilization equipment, as well as food and laundry services consuming large amounts of water and heat.  

Hospitals also generate tremendous amounts of waste—more than 29 pounds of it, per bed, per day nationwide, according to Practice Greenhealth, a health care membership organization that provides sustainability solutions. Some of that is regulated medical waste and hazardous waste that must be disposed of in very particular ways. Most of it is everyday solid waste, including office paper, cardboard, food scraps, and textiles.  

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Like any consumer, health care institutions can start to reduce unnecessary consumption by asking a simple question: Do we really need this thing we’re about to buy? Some items, like disposable gloves and catheter bags, must be discarded after one-time use to prevent the spread of infection. But soon the practice expands unnecessarily, until the hospital is tossing thousands of tourniquet cuffs, suture passers, compression sleeves, and other items—ranging from $10 to $100 each—that could be reused if cleaned properly.

How do you attack the waste problem? You figure out the biggest items generating waste and start there. In hospitals, blue wrap is one of those things—five-foot by five-foot sheets of plastic used to wrap surgical equipment for sterilization. Disposable blue wrap ends up in landfills—four or five sheets per surgery, multiplied by millions of U.S. surgeries a year. At approximately $25 per surgery, that’s money literally thrown away. A reusable metal pan that is sterilized works just as well.  

At Rochester Regional Health, we tackle sustainability on six key fronts relevant to many organizations:  

 Energy systems and conservation: Our goal is to source all of the electricity we use through renewable means by 2025. We’re getting there by reducing our energy use and building new renewable energy generation such as solar farms and converting food scraps to electricity.  

 Sustainable purchasing: Buy locally when possible, purchase products with cleaner supply chains, and hire companies that treat their workers well.

 The built environment: Repurpose existing buildings—including former retail spaces—and acquire Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certifications.

 Waste reduction and diversion: Our hospitals reduce unnecessary consumption, track 16 separate waste streams, and recycle more than 1.8 million pounds of materials annually.

 Food sourcing and waste: Twenty percent of our purchased produce is sourced from local farms.

 Community outreach and education: Share best practices with our local community, and support others in their own sustainability efforts.

Financial impacts

There’s a false notion that economic and environmental sustainability are in conflict. Nothing could be further from the truth. Through environmental efforts, RRH saves nearly $2.4 million a year—money we can now use, as a nonprofit organization, to fund lifesaving programs. 

The typical U.S. hospital would be glad to operate at a 3 percent margin, which translates into a net gain of 3 cents for every dollar earned. To add $2.4 million to its bottom line, that hospital would have to earn $80 million more in gross revenues. 

Sustainability makes good business sense. This is true in industry after industry, not just health care. Today, we all are at a crossroads in history when we can either be part of the problem or part of the solution. 

Michael Waller is director of sustainability and special assistant to the CEO at Rochester Regional Health.

For more information:

Practice Greenhealth

The American Society for Healthcare Engineering (ASHE)

The American Hospital Association teamed up with ASHE, the Association for the Healthcare Environment (AHE), and the American Society for Healthcare Resource and Materials Management (AHRMM) to produce a Sustainability Roadmap for Hospitals.

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