Approximately 2.1 billion tons of waste are produced annually, with the United States generating over 250 million tons of waste each year. Plastic waste generation is increasing in this country, and food waste is estimated to be between 30 to 40 percent of the food supply.
In the effort to “reduce, reuse, and recycle”, the healthcare industry has lacked the initiative to decrease their environmental impact and carbon footprint. Hospitals are an especially large culprit when it comes to waste, especially when you consider these numbers:
- Healthcare facilities produce almost 25 pounds of waste per day, per patient.
- Hospitals generate more than five million tons of waste each year.
- Approximately 85 percent of waste produced is non-hazardous, but 15 percent is comprised of possible infectious, radioactive or toxic hazardous material.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the types of healthcare waste include infectious, pathological, chemical, pharmaceutical, cytotoxic and radioactive materials. A small part of it is regulated by government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Joint Commission, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
A Unique Environment
Hospitals and health providers play an essential role in improving the health of their communities, increasing access to healthcare services and partnering with local organizations to address prevalent health drivers. They also face numerous challenges in changing processes that could be improved, including waste management.
Even with these obstacles, there are ways healthcare facilities can begin to reduce their carbon footprint.
1. Conserve Water
By utilizing water in cooling equipment, plumbing fixtures and medical process rinses, hospitals are responsible for 7 percent of total water use in U.S. commercial and institutional facilities. The EPA notes that employing water-efficient processes can help these facilities decrease operating costs by 11 percent and water use by 15 percent. This can be accomplished by installing more water-efficient equipment, regularly checking faucets and toilets for leaks or other issues and implementing various energy-saving measures to reduce the need for cooling and heating equipment.
2. Utilize Sustainable Products
Working with suppliers that offer sustainable and environmentally friendly products can require a large investment, but the environmental benefits are far-reaching for patients and employees. Some products used by hospitals—including fluorescent lamps, wheelchair cushions and flame-retardant mattresses—can be made with multiple chemicals. Whether a facility is being renovated or a new one is being built, standards from the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) provide essential guidelines for creating an eco-friendly facility.
3. Implement Energy-Saving Products
Hospitals receive an Energy Star Score based on how their energy performance compares to their peers. The score includes adjustments for the number of full-time equivalent workers, staffed beds and MRI machines, as well as for building size.
The U.S. Department of Energy reports that healthcare has one of the top five energy-consuming building categories, with hospitals spending a total of about $8.3 billion on energy costs annually. Decreasing energy usage in a hospital can be as simple as replacing old lighting and windows, buying Energy Star products and performing energy audits.
4. Modify Waste Disposal Processes
It’s not realistic for hospitals to eliminate the waste they produce, but they can change the disposal processes to be environmentally friendly. For example, they can implement an employee recycling program, reduce red-bag waste and use autoclaving or chemical treatment instead of incineration for sanitizing and disinfecting medical waste.
There are many other ways hospitals and health systems can go green. Technology is prevalent throughout the healthcare industry, and advances like electronic medical record (EMR) systems aid in helping the environment by reducing paper use. Adding green space to a facility and effectively managing stormwater through creative landscaping methods are also a manageable solution. No matter how small a shift is made toward supporting the environment, they all add up to ensuring quality healthcare, and quality living, is accessible to everyone for years to come.