What does going full tilt on environmentally green efforts get you, really, in this economy?
A lot, say the two winners of this year’s Practice Greenhealth Environmental Leadership Circle Award.
Lower energy, water, and waste bills have all come thanks to aggressive recycling programs, not to mention goodwill built among patients and the community, says Dawn LeBaron, vice president of hospital services at Fletcher Allen Health Care of Burlington, VT, one of the facilities that received the award.
The only way to convince administrators to jump on the bandwagon is to save money with your environmental initiatives. That can be a tough sell because the stigma of green construction and other waste-reducing schemes is that they cost more to do the right thing. But that hasn’t proven to be necessarily true.
“For the most part, all of our environmental efforts have saved us money,” says John Ebers, sustainable business officer at Metro Health Hospital of Wyoming, MI, the other award winner. “Some of [our efforts] take a longer-term view … but I think that speaks volumes about our organization.”
The Environmental Leadership Circle Award, Practice Greenhealth’s highest honor, goes to hospitals setting the highest standards for environmental practices. Practice Greenhealth is a national association that promotes environmentally beneficial efforts in healthcare.
Increased recycling and lower light use
Greening your facility and changing habits don’t happen quickly, but there are some higher-reward items to go after first, LeBaron and Ebers say—namely, more efficient energy use and recycling more material instead of throwing it in the trash barrel.
Fletcher Allen had a recycling program in its business and physician office for some time, but LeBaron and her colleagues recently pushed it further, obtaining recycling bins for newspapers and medical supplies in patient rooms. They also chase down and recycle IV bags and blue wrap in which sterile supplies come packaged.
The key to making any recycling program work is education through departmental meetings, which is then reinforced with small reminders (e.g., e-mails). Ebers says Metro Health staff members showed a desire to get into the green efforts but weren’t sure what to do. Once they were shown the way, compliance came pretty quickly.
“You’ve also got to make it easy for them to do it,” LeBaron says. “That’s what our environmental services [team] is working on doing.”
A big money-waster is excessive use of lights. Ebers says the following two measures will show results quickly:
- Changing light fixtures from T12 to T8 wherever possible. T12 and T8 refer to light tube diameters, with the smaller T8s being more energy efficient.
- Swapping out incandescent lights for LED lights on exit signs because LEDs last longer.
Also, if your facility has one, changing lighting in the parking garage can be a big money-saver.
LeBaron says that going after the biggest light-wasters—business offices and restrooms—with motion detectors that switch off lights when no one’s around helped Fletcher Allen lower consumption. In total, the facility decreased electrical demand by 8% from 2007 to 2008.
However, getting staff members to shut off lights and computers when they’re not in a room can be a more difficult task.
A big ball of mercury
Some of Fletcher Allen’s efforts didn’t save money but were the responsible things to do—such as reducing mercury on the premises, which provided a safety benefit by reducing potential employee exposure to the toxic element, LeBaron says.
The hospital accomplished that by cleaning out drain catches of a certain age. About 10 years ago, hospitals phased out mercury thermometers. Drain traps older than that were loaded with mercury, which is heavier than water and thus doesn’t wash out.
Fletcher Allen eradicated mercury everywhere else it found it on campus, including a 40-lb. ball of mercury used in an ancient boiler (the hospital upgraded the boiler’s hardware to function without the mercury). The facility also specified mercury-free medical gear for future purchase.
Planting a funky roof
Ebers, too, says that some of the measures he helped put in place might not be practical for every facility, such as a 48,500-square-foot vegetative roof for one building at Metro Health, which involves soil and 100,000 plants instead of shingles and asphalt. The vegetative roof will pay for itself—over a 20-year span—by helping with water runoff and providing a thermal barrier over the building. Also, it will last longer than a traditional roof.
But more common steps, including water reduction programs, are within the reach of many hospitals. Metro Health cut down on irrigation, having planted hardy, native vegetation on its grounds. These plants needed irrigation the first year to establish themselves but will look good without it in future seasons. This year, Metro Health is shutting off the irrigation on 20,000 square ft. of landscaping.
Pros and cons of vendor involvement
Once you start pricing out new gear, supplies, and construction ideas with an eye toward conservation, you’ll notice the “greenwashing” phenomenon: Vendors tout the environmental benefits of their products, regardless of whether they’re truly beneficial.
Ebers, whose desk gets bombarded with marketing materials on a daily basis, has a simple way of cutting to the chase: The more a vendor has to tell you its product is green, the less environmentally friendly it probably is, he says.
Some HVAC or power supply vendors might be willing to conduct an energy assessment of your facility, offering to find where you’re wasting energy. Understand what the vendor wants from you in exchange—perhaps a minimum purchase of equipment or services, LeBaron says.
In some cases, you might be better off paying for an independent consultant to perform the same assessment; however, Fletcher Allen ended up buying heating and cooling equipment from a long-standing vendor that conducted such an energy audit.
“You commit to doing a portion of what they identify,” LeBaron says. “But when you get down to it, [the vendor] spent a lot of time in this facility working with our own engineering team to identify opportunities, and that was a good thing.”