5 ways hospitals can go green

By Joanne Finnegan

Many hospitals want to "go green" and modify their energy consumption, waste disposal and chemical use to lessen their impact on the environment. Sustainability initiatives can help hospitals save millions, but it's difficult to know where to start.

"The breadth of sustainability issues can seem overwhelming for hospitals that have limited staff members, time and budget to begin addressing these issues," says Mike Reid, vice president of Amerinet Choice Energy Solutions in St. Louis.

Reid suggests that hospitals establish an environmentally preferable purchasing team to create environmental benchmarks and make sound purchasing decisions.

And he recommends five ways that hospitals can get maximum green results with little effort:

Go local. Hospital cafeterias serve a lot of food every day. The source of that food can have a dramatic effect on the hospital's environmental impact, Reid says. Hospitals can contract with group purchasing organizations and use more locally grown, fresh produce, which cuts down on gasoline used to ship and refrigerate food coming from distant locations. Hospitals can also work with a local composting company to get rid of food waste that local farms will later use as fertilizer.

Conserve water. Follow the lead of Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, a non-profit hospital that saved more than six million gallons of water per year by making several changes, according to Reid. The organization replaced the linear accelerator it used in radiation therapy with a better model; replaced bathroom toilets, faucets and showers with more efficient alternatives; and purchased high-efficiency dishwashers. On a large scale, less water per flush or shower can make a big difference in water consumption, Reid says.

Consume less energy. Although it is tricky for hospitals to reduce energy use and carbon output, it is not impossible, says Reid. For example, Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut saved more than 1.7 million kilowatt hours, cutting its electric costs by $303,000 per year and reducing its overall energy consumption by 35 percent. The hospital reprogrammed its heating and cooling plants, reengineered its air handling systems, and updated its light bulbs. To sell the idea, hospital leaders need to demonstrate how quickly such investments pay for themselves--in this case, Greenwich Hospital made back its money within six months, Reid says.

Look for greener waste disposal methods. U.S. hospitals produce more than 5.9 million tons of waste annually, according to Practice Greenhealth. A big challenge for hospitals is the variety of waste they generate, which can make environmentally friendly disposal difficult, Reid says. For example, organizations must disinfect regulated medical waste before it goes to a landfill to ensure there is no environmental contamination. While disinfection methods, such as incineration, are energy intensive and known to release noxious fumes, processes such as autoclaving, chemical treatment and microwaving can vary widely in how environmentally-friendly they are. Hospitals should ask their waste disposal providers about energy and chemical use in their disinfection process and consider switching if they can find a greener company, Reid says.

Consider chemical safety. Dozens of chemicals used in hospitals are dangerous under certain conditions, says Reid. Some of these culprits may surprise hospitals: LCD displays, fluorescent lamps, CRT monitors, flame retardant mattresses, wheelchair cushions and baby bottles. Products can contain hazardous chemicals if purchased from the wrong manufacturer. Reid suggests hospitals think about the products they purchase and properly recycle toxic goods such as batteries.

To learn more:
- here's the Practice Greenhealth info