Seven Steps to Help Your Healthcare Staff ‘Go Green’

Date Posted: April 3, 2012

By Melissa Wirkus, contributor

April 3, 2012 - The volume of waste generated by a healthcare facility can be substantial, adding a financial and environmental burden on the organization and the surrounding community.  That’s why many healthcare facilities are going to extra efforts to be good citizens and implement “green practices” for their staff that can limit the impact and save money.

From buying smarter to implementing innovative recycling programs, “going green” has become the ultimate practice in efficiency and corporate responsibility.  And there are countless things, both big and small, that healthcare professionals can do to help the cause.

Tod Christenson, director of the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council, said that focusing on procurement, high volume items and engaging other employees who are also passionate about the environment are some small steps that staff can take to get involved with waste reduction and recycling efforts.

In fact, Healthcare Briefings spoke to Christenson and a panel of experts recently who outlined several steps worth remembering.

Here are seven steps to help your staff  "go green:”

1. Start with purchasing. "On the buying side you can minimize the waste generation and waste handling cost by being well-practiced in what you buy, with an eye to waste minimization and recycle enablement," Christenson explained.

"Don't purchase things that don't get used, don't purchase things that have excessive packaging."

2. Let staff lead. "What we are seeing in terms of successful programs today is they are grassroots led," he continued. "So in other words, they are often led by departments or personnel within an organization that have a passion to want to do something about it, and they have management support."

3. Target specific areas with the most potential. Identifying a specific area to focus on in terms of recycling or waste reduction is an important part of the process, and Christenson advises staff to target pre-patient contact and other nonhazardous, high-volume materials such as the plastic wrap that goes around a medical instrument. These kinds of changes are fairly simple to do and don't require overt infrastructure changes, he explained, and focusing on items with the greatest potential return is another key to success.

"The most successful programs are going after high volume materials that the local recyclers desire and they are using posters to inform employees of what they want to capture. Items such as blue wrap, plastic basins, high density polyethylene bottles, and plastic packaging materials are most commonly targeted."

4. Recycle, but don’t reinvent the wheel. For Melissa Vargas, project lead for CalRecycle's (California's Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery) Healthcare Industry Waste Reduction and Recycling Team, targeting blue wrap--the material used for wrapping surgical instruments and most often found in the operating room and surgical suite--has helped facilities across the country reduce the amount of recyclables going to the landfill and save overhead costs by switching to sustainable options such as metal surgical cases.

Implementing a blue wrap recycling program or similar targeted initiative is an excellent way for healthcare professionals and hospitals to get involved, but with any initiative, Vargas said it's vital for staff members to get support from hospital leadership.

Rather than spearhead a project from scratch, her organization also encourages healthcare professionals to first coordinate with their facility’s environmental services manager and to work with their local city and county representatives who specialize in solid waste and recycling. These authorities can provide guidance in implementing a successful program.

“They are the ones that have the finger on the pulse as to what available resources there are in that particular area or community," she said.

5. Get each department and unit engaged. CalRecycle also offers an in-depth guide to managing material types by department, with links to examples of different departments within a healthcare facility, examples of common waste materials within that department and tips on reducing, reusing or recycling the waste. This guide is a great way for healthcare professionals to identify areas for improvement, and then bring these ideas to the appropriate decision makers.

Bringing reusable utensils for meals, implementing a recognition program that rewards employees for environmentally-friendly initiatives and sharing best practices with other facilities are all feasible ideas to implement that also help to get the staff engaged, Vargas said.

Like Christenson, Vargas stresses the importance of identifying waste reduction in the purchasing phase. "We encourage the purchasing department to really look at how much packaging is associated with certain products and if there is any way to get the vendors to reduce the packaging."

"There was a facility that was able to work with one of their vendors to reduce IV bag packaging, so they didn't have to worry about having triple packages over IV bags. They also worked with their vendors to reduce the amount of cardboard boxes that they were getting and use simple plastic totes to get their packages or materials in."

6. Monitor compliance and appropriate use. Appropriately allocating resources and identifying areas of improvements directly on the hospital floor can make a tangible impact on green efforts at the operational level.

"A lot of time hospitals are inappropriately utilizing their red bags for their waste stream, so for example we'll find that at nurses stations they have their waste baskets with red trash bag liners which signifies a regulated medical waste and costs the hospital, depending on the region, 10 to 18 percent more to have that removed than a regular medicinal trash bag," said Laura Wenger, RN, executive director of Practice Greenhealth, a nonprofit membership and networking organization supporting more than 1,200 healthcare institutions, providers and other groups.

7. Share best practices. The best defense hospitals and healthcare providers may have in the war against waste may actually be one another. Sharing best practices and learning from other facilities is one of the most effective ways to get started on implementing green initiatives. Practice Greenhealth's Greening the Operating Room initiative, for instance, is a testament to this type of collaboration. Since its inception in April 2010, more than 160 hospitals have signed on as participants and continue to share their successful interventions for a greener, more efficient OR.

"What we try to do is promote best practices that other hospitals within the membership are doing so they can learn from each other,” Wenger said.

Regardless of the type of program being implemented, starting small and focusing on one type of program at a time are two factors critical to overall success, Vargas added.   "These initiatives are good for the environment, good for the bottom line and good for the community," she said. "We know that patient care is paramount, but what also needs to be considered is applying patient care with green concepts that make fiscal sense that are also good for the environment, and in turn, can reach out to the community."