Cost pressures—current and future— are forcing hospitals to look in every nook and cranny for efficiencies and savings. That includes the waste stream. A recent American Hospital Association guide on green practices suggests that health care facilities could save the industry between $4 billion and $7 billion by adopting greener practices.
According to the AHA guide, Sustainability Roadmap for Hospitals, health care facilities generate up to 25 pounds of waste per day per patient.
"Reducing waste is challenging in health care because patient and worker safety comes first," says Janet Brown, sustainable operations director at Practice Greenhealth, an organization of health care institutions committed to eco-friendly practices. "Hospitals must balance protecting health and being environmentally conscious."
Practice Greenhealth recommends hospitals limit biohazardous waste, known as regulated medical waste, to less than 10 percent of waste production and suggests facilities maintain at least a 90 percent recycling rate for other waste types.
The notion that reusable devices constitute an infection risk is the biggest hindrance to reducing waste, says John Leigh, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center's waste and recycling programs manager. "Our industry is moving toward disposable rather than reusable equipment because of infection concerns," he says, citing staff education as key to cutting waste. "Until people are comfortable with the idea that some carefully handled reusable products are just as safe as disposables, we won't see a drastic reduction in hospital trash."
Dartmouth-Hitchcock altered how it handles regulated medical waste, he says, including using reusable sharps containers for used needles, reprocessing single-use devices, and buying hard pans and cases to reduce sterilization wrap in operating rooms.
As good community partners, hospitals must make environmentally wise decisions, says Carl Solomon Sr., University of California–San Francisco Medical Center's hospitality services director. Solomon is also a member of the Association for the Healthcare Environment Sustainability Task Force, which worked with AHA personal membership groups to create the executive-level sustainability guide. The guide can be found at www.hospitalsustainability.org.
Waste reduction also could save money. For example, Solomon says, switching from single-use pillows to reusable pillows can reduce both the quantity and price tag of waste. "Hospitals save if purchasers consider environmental and waste implications before buying supplies," Solomon says.
The Sustainability Roadmap for Hospitals provides tools for becoming better environmental stewards and covers everything from energy consumption and waste reduction to leadership and financing. Here's a sample of what it recommends for the C-suite:
- Dedicate the necessary human resources to coordinate and manage sustainability initiatives.
- Support the creation of Green Teams.
- Walk the talk. Make recycling a top priority in the administrative offices.
- Publicize the organization's actions and progress on a regular basis.
For more info visit www.sustainabilityroadmap.org.