By Erica Cohen
A recent report by the nonprofit Commonwealth Fund demonstrated that the heath care sector could achieve significant cost savings if all hospitals were to “go green.” According to the report, the savings could surpass $5.4 billion over five years and $15 billion over 10 years.
The health care industry accounted for 8% of the U.S. carbon footprint in 2009 with hospitals comprising the largest share. Most of the energy used is for temperature control, ventilation, and lighting in large, high-tech hospital buildings.
Some hospitals have made significant efforts to reduce their carbon footprint and their impact on the environment.
The University of Chicago Medical Center’s sustainability program implemented a plastic recycling program that diverts more than 500 pounds of waste each day from landfills to recycling plants. The program also ensures that 90% of hospital cleaning supplies are Green Seal certified, which means the products meet rigorous, science-based standards for protecting human health and the environment. These efforts have reduced waste costs at the Medical Center by $20,000 per month, or 63%.
Locally, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has also made strides in creating environmentally sustainable facilities with its EcoCHOP program. EcoCHOP led to the construction of the LEED-certified Colket Translational Research Building (CTRB). LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the U.S. Green Building Council’s internationally recognized designation for an environmentally responsible building. The extremely high-tech CTRB building was built with materials that better retain heat in the winter and reflect it in the summer and plumbing fixtures that use 30% less water. Additionally, 85% of construction waste from building the facility was recycled.
CTRB was one of only two LEED-certified science buildings constructed in Pennsylvania in 2009.
Hospitals’ high energy bills are passed along to patients in the form of higher health care costs. Additionally, carbon emissions pumped into the air are harmful to all citizens’ health.
There are many ways hospitals can lessen their impact on the environment. Dining services can change the way they prepare food to reduce waste and high energy use from kitchen appliances. Many operating room instruments can be recycled or reprocessed – a method of cleaning and sterilizing an instrument for reuse – which eliminates waste from landfills. Hospitals can even make a profit by separating recyclable products like paper goods, plastic, and metal from waste. In return, they can receive rebates from their waste removal companies for those materials, which would otherwise cost tens of thousands of dollars to haul away to landfills.
In addition to saving money, reducing the health care sector’s carbon footprint would have important environmental benefits. Many scientists believe that increased carbon emissions are directly linked to global warming. They see evidence of it in extreme weather events and storms, such as the unusually warm winter experienced by the East Coast in 2012, and Hurricane Sandy, which caused upwards of $29 billion in damage in New Jersey alone.
In order to prevent tragic natural disasters, we must focus on the effect we have on the environment. Hospitals have the opportunity to make a difference by adopting “green” practices and implementing preservation efforts. While patient care should always be the top priority, the environment should also be on hospital executives’ minds, both to save costs and to ensure the health and safety of future generations.