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Hospitals save millions with sustainability programs, cut back on waste

Health systems target operating room waste, energy efficiency, recycling and even printers to cut back.

Beth Jones Sanborn, Managing Editor

As hospitals reconcile their massive environmental footprints, more systems are focusing on sustainability to cut their imprints and save money at the same time.

Hospitals are the second greatest commercial energy user behind commercial food services, according to advocacy group Practice Greenhealth, emitting roughly 8 percent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions. They also produce more than 4.67 million tons of waste every year and use 7 percent of the country's commercial water supply.

"The operating rooms have a huge environmental footprint. They use 30 percent of the supplies for the entire hospital," said, Cecilia Lynn, director of sector performance and recognition for Practice Greenhealth. Fluid management programs, reformulation of operating room kits and unused tools, medical device reprocessing and HVAC setbacks for when ORs aren't in use can save $25,000 annually for just one operating room. The average hospital has 11.

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Jon Utech, director of the Office for a Healthy Environment at the Cleveland Clinic for three and a half years, said the famed health system has done a lot over the past 10 years to become more sustainable.

The Clinic has committed to a 20 percent reduction in energy usage per square foot for their buildings and has achieved 12 percent so far, saving $6 million a year in energy costs.

Their LED retrofit lighting project, which they tout as the biggest such project in healthcare, hinges on locally manufactured LED bulbs, which pumps money back into the community. As the lighting throughout the system converts, Utech projects they will reduce lighting costs by $3 million a year just by switching lightbulbs.

"They improve optical clarity as well," Utech said.

[Also: Dignity Health divests holdings in coal energy, calls climate change a public health issue]

Minnesota-based HealthPartners, a large health system that employs 22,500, has seen similar savings through its own green-energy projects.

"Historically healthcare hasn't really focused on energy efficiency, but there's a lot of fairly simple solutions," said Dana Slade, the system's first director of sustainability programs.

For starters, Slade sought incentives offered through their utility company to find savings. Their largest hospital has received more than $460,000 in rebates over the last five years and has saved about $1.3 million through energy-efficient equipment installed over the same period.

LED lights and variable frequency drives allow HVAC equipment to dial back output and save energy when rooms aren't in use, compounding savings over time.

Finally, Slade said the system has invested in a solar panel grid, called a solar garden. They've committed to a certain amount of support for the garden, which is not at their facilties, and in return they'll get a roughly 10 percent rebate of their committment. 

Utech said he launched a "Green the OR committee" when he started at Cleveland Clinic to cut back on operating room waste. For starters, just making sure air conditioning was not being used when the operating rooms were empty saved $2 million.

Also, a lot of devices made to be single use can actually be reprocessed, resterilized and reused. Through a vendor program, they have been able to reuse some of them and that's meant another $2.5 million a year saved.

"We see the same clinical outcomes and it makes care more affordable," Utech said.

Slade said HealthPartners saved almost $1 million last year thanks to a variety of operating room fixes single-use device reprocessing, reusable containers, reusable fluid management systems and recycling "hard-to-recycle" plastics.

Simply managing waste streams and separating trash can mean huge savings, Lynn said. Recycling rebates have reduced the cost to half the price of solid waste, she said. Sending a ton of recycling out the door cost half the price of what it would to get rid of a ton of solid waste. Going further, regulated medical waste costs 10 times as much as solid waste. So if staff aren't paying attention and they throw their gloves, cups and various other pieces of waste in the regulated waste container because it's the only one in the room, that could be costing the hospital serious money over time, Lynn said.

[Also: Gundersen Health goes off the grid, saves money as energy independent hospital]

Practice Greenhealth has been helping hospitals form and execute sustainability programs for nearly 20 years and Lynn said it doesn't take much for a health system to go green. For an easy start, Lynn suggests hospitals focus on recycling, waste stream management and even making sure staff is shutting off lights.

Both Utech and Slade said startup costs for their sustainability programs were modest and payback can be almost immediate with green building initiatives. However, large infrastructure projects will carry a heftier price tag up front, with a longer payback period.

"You need to be flexible, assess the situation and implement programs that work and not force something that won't work," said Slade.

Utech also suggested system's start small. In July 2013, Cleveland made their printer/copier/scanner contract a zero waste contract. They recycled packaging and made double-sided printing the default setting. The effort saved $250,000 and 6,000 trees a year, he said.

"There are tools out there and organizations to help. It's just a shift of mindset. If you put the lens of sustainability on, opportunities emerge," Utech said.

Twitter: @BethJSanborn