The United States health care industry is responsible for nearly 10 percent of national greenhouse gas emissions, according to a recent study from PLOS One, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. And if the global health care sector were a country, it would be the fifth largest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet, according to a report from Health Care Without Harm.
Now, health care professionals worldwide are banding together to find ways to reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions.
In Clark County, one hospital is making significant strides toward becoming a greener operation, and it is becoming a model for other hospitals looking to cut down on waste and emissions.
PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center recently joined Practice Greenhealth, a health care membership organization comprised of some 1,400 hospitals worldwide that provides information, tools, data, resources and expert technical support on sustainability initiatives to help hospitals reduce their carbon footprint.
“They’re the premier organization when it comes to helping hospitals be greener,” said Brian Nelson, sustainability program manager for PeaceHealth Southwest.
Nelson was brought on as a full-time sustainability program manager by the hospital in 2021, making him the first and only sustainability manager across all PeaceHealth systems.
The role is unusual, according to Nelson. Typically, hospitals will have sustainability task forces or committees — but rarely a full-time manager committed to reducing waste. The decision to bring on a full-time sustainability program manager was part of a larger commitment by PeaceHealth Southwest to become more sustainable, Nelson said.
In his role, Nelson oversees a team of PeaceHealth employees interested in sustainability. The team works to identify areas where waste and emissions can be reduced and implement systems to reduce that waste indefinitely.
Nelson and his team focus exclusively on operations at PeaceHealth Southwest. However, if a project is successful, it is replicated at PeaceHealth hospitals across Washington, Oregon and Alaska.
“Everything that we try to do here is all about identifying opportunities and then coming up with processes for piloting things,” Nelson said. “We have been able to share our successes with our sister hospitals across the PeaceHealth system, and that has multiplied the effect of these efforts.”
On Earth Day, Clark County awarded PeaceHealth Southwest with the Green Business of the Year award in the large business category thanks to some of the projects piloted by Nelson and his team.
PeaceHealth Southwest purchases roughly 18,000 pounds of surgical blue wrap — a versatile material used to cover sterile surgical instruments — every year.
Used surgical blue typically ends up in landfills. However, by working with the distributor, Nelson and his team were able to recycle some 6,000 pounds of the material in 2021.
“This was something that our nursing team in our operating rooms had been trying to do for a couple years,” Nelson said. “It was in my role as sort of a dot connector that I was able to help them put together a process that we’ve now instituted.”
Blue surgical wrap isn’t easily recyclable, but by working with the supplier of the material, Nelson learned that it could be returned to the vendor for reuse. For example, the vendor can recycle the material into surgical gowns, plastic washbasins and more.
After seeing the success of the project, three other PeaceHealth hospitals — St. John Medical Center in Longview and two in Oregon — have implemented the same system.
“That’s been a very successful program for us,” Nelson said. “It diverted a lot of waste from going to the landfill.”
Another project Nelson spearheaded was cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions by eliminating one of the most environmentally harmful substances from the hospital’s operations: Desflurane, the most common form of gaseous anesthesia.
“It’s horrible for the environment,” Nelson said. “But it’s the most common gas that all hospitals use.”
Over the past year, Nelson has worked with PeaceHealth Southwest and other PeaceHealth hospitals in Washington to phase out Desflurane in favor of a more environmentally friendly option. The project was successful: PeaceHealth hospitals in Washington have effectively eliminated the gas from their operations. Systemwide, Desflurane use has been reduced by 99.5 percent, Nelson said.
“We’re still working to get to zero,” he said.
Hospitals also produce a lot of food waste. By working with a PeaceHealth Southwest caregiver who owns a farm, Nelson and his team have been able to divert 13 tons of food scraps from heading to the landfill.
Additionally, PeaceHealth Southwest recently began participating in the Cool Food Pledge through the World Resources Institute, a consortium of organizations working to reduce environmental impacts by providing menus with plant-based options.
“It’s about trying to give people more options as opposed to always thinking that a meal has to be meat and potatoes,” Nelson said.
All of these programs will continue indefinitely, Nelson said. Through Practice Greenhealth, PeaceHealth Southwest collects data on all of its sustainability initiatives, which allows Nelson and his team to track the impact of each program and to identify where additional waste can be reduced.
“Every one of the programs that we’re putting in place, we’re very adamant about capturing data along with it, as well,” Nelson said. “You can’t improve on what you can’t measure.”
Nelson hopes to identify more ways to reduce waste from operating rooms, which are responsible for roughly 20 to 30 percent of most hospitals’ waste, he said. Additionally, over the next five to 10 years, he hopes to reduce energy and water use and to increase greener purchasing options.
While the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to some additional waste at PeaceHealth Southwest, Nelson said it also provided an opportunity to take a hard look at how hospital operations could become more sustainable.
“It was a good opportunity for us to really look at our operations and efficiencies, especially as supply chain impacts hit us,” Nelson said. “I think after things settle down, we’ll be in a very good position to continue to build on this work.”
Nelson is currently focused on installing electric vehicle chargers at PeaceHealth Southwest and on bringing food waste down to zero.
He’s grateful for the recognition he and his team received from Clark County, and he’s looking forward to the work ahead.
“We’ve got a big task ahead of us, but I think people are seeing the light,” he said. “People are realizing that we don’t have time to continue to argue about global warming. Here at PeaceHealth, we will continue to look for opportunities where we can reduce our environmental impact while still taking great care of our patients.”