The Greening of Health Care ~ Think Big Think Small & Think in Between

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Going green is the realization that every effort counts, even if some efforts don’t at first find their rhythm. Green experts working in healthcare – or in any field or industry – urge others to think of the materials they use as being part of a stream. Then ask yourself, “What can be done upstream to lessen the impact of waste downstream?”

A Green Region

The Pacific Northwest of the US embraced recycling long before it became common or popular. Buy-local farmers markets dot the urban and suburban landscapes of most major cities. Area ports do a booming business shipping towers, blades and nacelles headed for wind-energy farms sprouting in Oregon and Washington.


A regional fast-food chain composts and recycles its waste, powers its stores on renewable-energy credits, and uses local, sustainable commodities to make its food, focusing on a different local product each month – blackberries one month, asparagus the next.

So for the people who live here and work in health care, being green is a matter of routine. But even with that culture – in the Pacific Northwest or wherever you happen to be – some things have to happen inside an organization for these efforts to truly take hold.

Start with a hospital’s mission statement. Is it lengthy and forgettable, tucked away in filing cabinet drawers? Or is it easily remembered by employees, something that can become part of the organization’s everyday thinking?


What if your mission statement came in not at 100 words, or even 50 words, but at 15? And what if it included additional goals, beyond direct patient care? Our mission is good health for our people, our patients, our communities, and our world.

That kind of thinking, from the top, is essential to any green effort.

Without a commitment from the executive level, experts say, going green will likely go nowhere. That’s because sometimes it costs a little bit more – especially at the outset of a new recycling effort or other green activity – to do the right thing. Without the support of upper hospital management, such an expense might be questioned, and such an effort might be scuttled.

A Coordinated Effort

In the Pacific Northwest, ongoing efforts to reduce energy and water consumption have prompted hospitals and health systems to partner with the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA). With that organization, hospitals are developing strategic resource management plans tailored to each facility. It’s a way for hospitals to take a consistent approach to energy and water conservation, and it’s also a way for hospitals to share best practices with one another, through the NEEA.

“It’s so much more valuable to have a system approach than the individual hospitals approaching energy efficiency with this or that project,” Medrice Coluccio of Peace Health told the NEEA. “The strategic energy management plan includes things we didn’t think of, like purchasing and training.”

So if a health system consumes 100 kilowatt hours of electricity a year – enough to power about 7,000 homes – NEEA can help set a target to reduce that by, say, 10 percent. (Reductions are based on actual energy consumed annually, rather than on the cost of that energy; that’s because energy prices fluctuate so frequently and by so much that a monetary benchmark is less representative of relative success.)

Site audits by NEEA identify conservation opportunities, and consistent measurements track the reductions.

So that’s thinking big. What about thinking small, and thinking in between?

The approach some hospitals take is to form employee “green teams” – either within key departments of one hospital, or at individual hospitals within a health system. These teams can meet regularly, help disseminate “green” information, and brainstorm ways to broaden and deepen efforts to conserve, reuse and recycle.


Reminders about how personal behaviors affect green efforts can be included in the in-house newsletter, computer screen-savers, posted signs and through verbal reminders. (And regarding that in-house newsletter: Is it still being printed on paper? Or are you delivering it electronically, with just a handful of printed copies posted for those without computer access?)

Energy conservation experts refer to such education efforts as guarding against “casual wastefulness.”

So …

  • Are you going to be out of your office for more than 15 minutes? Turn off the lights.
  • Power-down your computer when it’s not in use.
  • Is your office a bit chilly or warm? Work with facilities to fix the problem, rather than plugging in an energy-sapping fan or space heater.
  • Are you walking in the front doors and feeling a bit lazy? Don’t push the power-door opener unless you have a physical need to do so. Why? Because it uses not only the energy required for opening but also opens outer and inner doors simultaneously, letting out air that has been heated or cooled.
  • Is it a bright day and your office has a window? Leave the lights off and use only ambient light.

And have facilities crews make other changes, some of them invisible to passersby. Exit signs that use incandescent bulbs, for example, can be replaced with LEDs, consuming less power and generating less heat. Combined, each of these small steps adds up to less energy consumed.

Think of the Stream

Green experts working in healthcare – or in any field or industry – urge others to think of the materials they use as being part of a stream. Then ask yourself, “What can be done upstream to lessen the impact of waste downstream?”

So when someone in the purchasing department considers buying new bedpans, one of the questions that should be asked is, How and where can this be recycled? You need to think green before you can act green.

A key to success here is to develop strong relationships between hospitals and their vendors. Are vendors thinking green, too? Can you encourage them to look even further upstream, or further downstream? The bottom line, for being green, is that you need to consider every item that comes into the hospital, and figure out how it will go out with the least environmental impact. Success in one area helps generate success in other areas.

And as you develop contracts with recyclers, make sure you find out just what they do with the materials you’re sending to them. Follow the stream as far as it goes in order to make sure you’re doing what you set out to do – minimizing the waste stream, increasing the recycling stream, and leaving the smallest environmental footprint you can along the way.

Sometimes, it’s a real stream that benefits. That’s because the opportunity to be green arises in unexpected moments, too.

Participation in Local Programs

Through Legacy Health’s participation in four area power companies’ renewable energy programs, Legacy is reducing toxic carbon emissions.

“Participating in these programs shows that Legacy is eager to support the evolution of renewable power,” said Pat Lydon, strategic resource coordinator for Legacy Health.

That’s thinking big, a reduction in toxic emissions that’s the equivalent of planting nearly half a million trees or keeping 267 vehicles off the road.

But a good guide for any hospital or health system looking to go green is not just to think big, but to also think small, and think at every level in between.

Put out the recycling bins for paper and plastic. Post signs reminding people to turn off the lights when they’re done with the conference room. Switch from paper charts to electronic charts. Design landscapes with native plants, with an eye toward water conservation and easier maintenance. Find a way to recycle that so-called “blue wrap,” common to hospitals everywhere; that alone can keep tons of material from the waste stream.

Recycling For a Better Tomorrow

Going green is the realization that every effort counts, even if some efforts don’t at first find their rhythm.

Consider child safety seats. One hospital started accepting them for recycling long before it had identified a market for them. Seeing the multiple good purposes – keeping car seats from piling up in landfills, and also keeping outdated or damaged car seats from being reused in an unsafe manner – the hospital collected and stored them in a warehouse dedicated to its recycling efforts.

The pile spread to fill one wing of the warehouse, reaching toward the ceiling, before an effective recycling stream was found. Now, the pile is long gone, and as more car seats arrive, they are stripped of cloth and sent off to be ground down, metal removed, rigid plastic recycled into other products.

The message is simple: Recycle everything you can, and continue to look for new markets to support additional recycling efforts.

“The message isn’t cradle-to-grave anymore; it’s cradle-to-cradle,” says Bill Clark, Legacy Health’s sustainability coordinator. “Reuse everything you can.”

About the Author

Brian Willoughby is the public relations and community relations specialist at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center in Vancouver, Washington.  Legacy Health is based in Portland, Oregon, where being green is part of the abiding culture. Three of Legacy’s medical centers – Emanuel, Good Samaritan and The Children’s Hospital at Emanuel – are in the heart of the city. Three others are in suburban settings: Legacy Meridian Park in Tualatin to the south; Legacy Mount Hood in Gresham to the east; and Legacy Salmon Creek in Vancouver, Washington, across the Columbia River to the north. Legacy embraces many of the green activities outlined in this story. Legacy approaches green issues from a systemwide perspective; in addition, each of Legacy’s medical centers has a “Green Team” looking out for additional opportunities and practices. To learn more about Legacy Health, visit www.legacyhealth.org.