Sustainable Healthcare: The Movement Toward Globally Green – Part 2: Make the Change

Welcome back! In part one of this three-part series on the medical movement toward globally green, we began the discussion by identifying some of the common barriers to creating an immediate, completely sustainable industry. Many of the barriers involve the industry’s culture as a whole and each of the 18 million American healthcare workers (falsely) perceiving themselves and their individual actions as seemingly insignificant in the movement. Join us in today’s post as we continue the discussion by offering some solutions on how each individual and large institutions can make changes toward becoming green while protecting their bottom line.

When we are discussing the ways that the medical industry can reduce waste and create more sustainable practices in an effort to move toward a greener tomorrow, it is important to evaluate every aspect of the industry, including medical supplies used for patient care as well as facility management supplies, office supplies, and dining materials.

Reduce

As you may remember from the earliest of your childhood years, the old mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” begins with reduce. While the triangle is a never-ending triangle of arrows, the key is to begin with reducing both the number of resources consumed and waste produced. Here are some of the ways that the healthcare industry has begun making progress and can continue to enact change.

EMR

Not only is an electronic medical record (EMR)easier to read, access, keep track of, and edit, it is environmentally responsible. The healthcare industry, as a whole, is placing more reliance on electronic records for a variety of reasons including remote access for providers and sharing of critical information between providers as well as reducing medical errors by implementing automatic screening systems and negating the need to decipher script or dictating telephone orders. EMR has dramatically improved patient safety and improved communication between medical staff. EMRs also serve to prevent thousands of reams of paper and thousands of gallons of ink to print medical records each day.

Individual Packaging

As counterproductive as it may seem, single-serving packaging serves to save medical facilities money as well as save thousands of tons of valuable resources. Multi-use bottles of the product tend to waste more than is used. Whether it is because once opened, the clock to expiration begins, or because product becomes contaminated and is no longer able to be used, or worse, the multi-use packaging does not allow for 100% of the product to be used. Single-use products can create more waste in the packaging, so it is important to be mindful of places where multi-use versus single-use is more practical and less wasteful. Also, be mindful that using single-use packets of product that have less packaging and are environmentally friendly can help considerably.  

Medical Supply Management

Effective medical supply management is a cornerstone to a successful reduction in the use and waste of resources. Medical supply specialists should be engaged and taking an active approach to handle inventory, ordering, and storage of medical supplies. Some tips for medical supply managers to help reduce medical waste include:

  • Order only what is needed
  • Continually take stock of what is used and how it is used
  • Avoid ordering pre-packed kits
  • Avoid ordering in excess
  • Manage expiration dates and rotation of stock
  • Return unused or expired goods to the manufacturer for recycling
  • Donate unused goods that cannot be recycled
  • Monitor for waste, fraud, and abuse

Some supplies may be used more rapidly because they are less effective, so requesting regular feedback is important. Pre-packaged kits may contain items that are not used and are, therefore, trashed without being touched. This is not only a waste of your facility’s money but also valuable resources. Instead, consider ordering products that can be used to make provider or procedure specific kits within your facility.

Consumption

Reducing consumption of medical supplies does not mean that supplies should be rationed or that use must be justified, but it does mean educating staff to be mindful of their use and be proactive in protecting resources. Reducing consumption can be implemented in many areas and begins with common areas of disposables. Some ways that your facility can reduce wasteful consumption includes:

  • Offer discounts for bringing mugs to the cafe
  • Implement an individual charging system for inventory
  • Stock reusable supplies instead of one-time-use products
  • Restrict access to supplies

Reuse

Reuse is the next element of waste prevention. Reusable supplies offer a solution when use cannot be reduced. Reuse is a debated topic in the medical industry and some may argue that the sterilization process required to make items safe for reuse can cause as much environmental damage as making new supplies. However, disinfection processes have become much safer over the last decade, for those charged with performing the task, the environment, and end users of reused products.

Linens

Linens, including bedspreads, clothing, and towels account for nearly 3% of a hospital’s total expense. Whether your facility rents or buys linens and does laundry on-site or sends it out, disinfecting linens is a process that is much more involved than that of household laundry. Reducing the number of linens used daily is the first hurdle to jump and includes being conservative with bed changes as needed rather than daily. Reusing linens, in whatever way your facility chooses to, helps to save millions each year.

Multi-Use Tools

In most cases, medical tools that can be sterilized and reused offer a more durable, reliable application to begin with. In recent years, tools like “recyclable trauma shears” and the like offer limited-use products that are meant to be recycled rather than reused. While this may cut down on the risk of contamination or money wasted when the tools are lost at the point of initial use, it does little to save on cost or the environment. Opt for high-quality reusable medical supplies and sterilize to reuse rather than purchasing disposable versions.

Recycle

Recycling is the third option in the triad, which should be used in the event that you cannot reduce and can no longer reuse an item. Recycling does not always consist of breaking items back down to the compounds that were used to make them, but can also include repurposing or retiring items. Some of the ways that you can implement recycling in your facility include:

Recycle bins for patrons.

It may seem like a small move, but placing recycling bins out for use makes a huge impact. Imagine in a week at a 300-bed facility if only the plastic and aluminum from the vending machines were recycled by patients family members. This amount of material can easily fill a regular-sized dumpster each day. Now, imagine all the plastic and aluminum being recycled by family, patients, and staff. This amount of material can prevent the filling of an entire landfill.

Cleveland Clinic gave it a try and was able to educate staff end encourage nearly 33% of waste to be recycled over the year. While 33% was much lower than they hoped for, it resulted in 194 tons of clinical plastic and 4,000 tons of paper to be recycled. This not only equates to space saved in a landfill but resources that were able to be reused and save more lives.

Donate expired items.

Expired items are not always unable to be used, they just may not be authorized for use at your facility or for humans. For instance, expiration dates on products like gauze and tape indicate the guaranteed safe date as tested by the manufacturer. When these items are kept in their sterile packaging, they are still good for use in a variety of settings but have not been proven to be safe to use in <i>every</i> setting. It is perfectly safe to donate most expired items to organizations that can use them. Some ideas include:

  • Local free clinics or homeless shelters
  • Local veterinarians
  • Medical-based education facilities — nursing schools, etc.
  • Crisis organizations
  • Third-world donation shipments
  • Local scout troops

All of these agencies can let you know what they can accept and use and most would gladly take donations or even be willing to offer some sort of exchange or purchase supplies from you. The bottom line is, there is no good reason that expired medical supplies should end up in the trash. Even as training aids, expired supplies serve a useful purpose.

Send back to the vendor for reuse.

Many vendors, especially those who make durable medical equipment or medical devices, have existing programs to accept their expired, broken, or outdated products back. Sometimes they will even buy them back to help share the savings with you. These supplies may be refurbished, repurposed, or resold. Ask your vendors about their policies before purchasing with them.  

Sustainability

Discussing the global push for saving the environment begins with evaluating the way we do things and how we can reduce our carbon emissions and environmental impact. Although reduce, reuse, recycle is a great mantra in terms of the use of resources that have already been harvested, it is a small part of being environmentally conscious. In the healthcare industry, when we bring up ideas like “going green,” the thought immediately jumps to bedside care and what practitioners can do to both prevent the spread of infection and reduce waste. However, as any beside clinician or hospital administration can assure you, there are as much support services that go into running the medical industry as there is patient care. Reducing the environmental of the healthcare industry as a whole includes water and energy consumption, chemical use and disposal, transportation, and the use of environmentally friendly building materials. Discussing some of these things are entirely separate post topics. Some, tangible things that we can do to help create a more sustainable industry include reducing our carbon emissions and reducing waste.  

Start green.

Invest in companies to support your facility that is environmentally responsible and work toward being green. Don’t simply trust a company that says they are “green,” but look for the facts in the numbers.

At EcoVue, we can offer you the proof in numbers. Last year alone, our products:

  • Kept 1.5 million plastic bottles out of landfills (and recycling centers, for that matter),
  • Created 60,000 fewer pounds of emissions with our lighter, more compact packaging that requires
    • 94% less storage space, which means
    • Less room required for transportation,
  • Allowed for 800,000 pounds of product to be effectively used rather than thrown away.

When you are looking for a company that produces medical products while looking out for the environment, from beginning to end, trust the team at EcoVue. Shop our entire product line online today.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of this three-part series as we discuss the benefits of going green, industry-wide. What’s good for the environment is good for your bottom line.