Healthcare facilities are major sources of pollution. On a daily basis, hospitals in the United States create almost 7,000 tons of solid waste. Single-use gloves, plastic wrapping around tools, syringes and other plastic products are used for a few moments, then thrown in the garbage. Hazardous solid waste also includes electronic devices and accessories that are especially toxic if they end up in landfills.
Hospitals are energy-intensive buildings with power requirements all day, every day. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 10% of greenhouse emissions in the United States alone come from the healthcare industry. This contributes to cancer, heart attacks, strokes and asthma--so much for the healthcare industry's core tenant of "first, do no harm".
The Shift to Greener Practices
But, it's not all gloom and doom. Healthcare organizations big and small have become aware of the pollution and harmful impact on communities. There is a recent shift to greener practices for the benefit of human health and the environment. In honor of Earth Day 2019, let's take a moment to celebrate 6 top initiatives that healthcare organizations are undertaking to make their operations healthier for the environment and society as a whole.
As the green movement continues to gather steam, the healthcare industry is under close examination. Many hospitals are pioneering new environmentally-sound practices. Healthcare Without Harm has member hospitals worldwide that have committed to switching to 100% renewable power. We hope you'll be inspired by these eco-pioneers of the healthcare industry.
1. The Healthcare Without Harm Movement is Making Progress
In 1994, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report with some disturbing findings. They found that hospital incinerators throughout the United States were a top emitter of harmful air pollutants (think mercury and dioxin--no good!)
Due to these disturbing facts, environmental activist Gary Cohen founded Healthcare Without Harm in 1996. This organization is dedicated to the cause of persuading hospitals to adopt more sustainable waste management practices. The effects are noticeable. When Healthcare Without Harm started, there were 4,500 medical incinerators operating within the U.S. As of 2010, there are only 57 left, according to the EPA.
2. Effective recycling programs for single-use products
Modern healthcare necessitates single-use items to combat cross-contamination and the spread of disease. However, these single-use products are some of the biggest contributors to hospital waste. Hospitals across the nation are coming up with creative workarounds to launch effective recycling programs. For example, Dignity Health created a program to recycle sterilization wrap used to package surgical instruments. Their initiative has been named The Blue Renew Wrap Recycling Program.
In 2017, Dignity Health held a competition to see who could recycle the most wrap. They recycled 250,000 lbs! In 2018, they expanded the competition across a network of hospitals and collectively recycled over 125 tons. Dignity Health has also partnered with Halyard Health and Sustainable Solutions to repurpose their sterilization wrap into new products. The wrap is transformed into a material called "BlueCON Resin," which is turned into sustainable hospital products. BlueCon Resin can be made into tote bags, garbage bins, bedpans, and more!
3. U.S. hospitals are ahead of emissions reduction schedules
More good news: U.S. hospitals are ahead of emissions reduction schedules, achieving goals that were set for the year 2020! A new method of sharps disposal called SharpSmart Disposal from Daniels Health is partially responsible.
Daniels Health estimates that U.S. hospitals use 35 million sharps containers each year to dispose of needles, scalpels and other biohazardous material. The manufacture, use, and disposal of these containers generates around 96,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. The Sharp Smart system reduces CO2 emissions by 84%, which exceeds the 28% target set for all U.S. federal buildings to meet by 2020. Applied to all U.S. hospitals, it's estimated that this method will reduce greenhouse gas production by 18,000 tons and 57,000 MTCO2eq annually.
4. Making surgery greener
When it comes to surgery, the majority of waste comes from operating and delivery rooms. There have been many surgical innovations in the past few years to make our surgeries more environmentally friendly. Reducing items in the basic surgical kit has a big impact on the environment, while a new biodegradable cast material made out of wood chips is shaking up the industry. Here are a few other changes that can make a big impact:
- Reusable cloth patient gowns instead of disposable ones
- Offer customers online bill pay to save paper
- Steam-based sterilization cuts down on chemical use
As many hospitals are finding out, making surgery practices greener is often the most cost-effective choice! For example, the San Diego branch of Kaiser Permanente switched to recycling their SUDS (single-use devices) and were rewarded with $300,000 in savings for one year! Another great source of savings is energy-efficient power. When facilities do an energy efficient update, they can expect to save 25-45% of the hospital's energy bill.
5. Medical centers saving water
Modern U.S. hospitals also use a lot of water. Some hospitals are combating water usage issues by switching to locally-sourced produce in their cafeterias. Another innovative idea is to compost food waste so that local farms can use it as fertilizer. The Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle is a shining example of how to improve upon water use. Their facilities saved more than 6 million gallons of water each day with the following steps:
- Replacing their linear accelerator with a better model
- Switching out toilets, faucets and showers with efficient models
- Using high-efficiency dishwashers and washing machines
6. Johns Hopkins Continues as a Leader in Green Practices Including Electronic Waste Recycling
Johns Hopkins Hospital was recognized in 2010 for their practice of recycling all varieties medical equipment. Today they have expanded their efforts by encouraging offices to qualify for green certifications. So far, 48 offices have been certified. The hospital has earned 13 local and national recognitions related to sustainability. In the past year they have recycled 250,000 pounds of single use devices, equipment and furniture.
Make Your Workplace Greener Today!
As the green movement continues to grow, more people in the industry are taking the lead, finding innovative, practical, and cost-effective ways to reduce healthcare's massive carbon footprint. We hope you've been inspired by these green initiatives within healthcare.
Looking for Help Disposing of Medical Electronic Waste?
Meet your HIPAA obligation, protect your patient’s data, and protect the environment – and human health – from the negative impacts of e-waste by working with a professional, certified e-waste disposal company.
Mayer Metals Corporation will provide you with peace of mind that you are disposing of your organization’s electronic waste safely and responsibly. All electronic waste is recycled in an R2 Certified facility. All hard drives are destroyed and Certificates of Destruction in compliance with Department of Defense (DoD) security standards are provided. For more information about electronic recycling check out our Ultimate Guide To Corporate Electronic Recycling.