Guest post by Matthew Speer
With nearly 5,000 hospitals in the United States and more than 750,000 beds, medical facilities leave a tremendous environmental footprint that includes solid waste, energy consumption and disposal of biological and hazardous chemical waste.
Those who manage health facilities face the same challenges to reduce, reuse and recycle, especially those overseeing large hospitals. The healthcare industry is working to shrink its environmental impact with efforts such as Practice Greenhealth and the Healthcare Environmental Resource Center.
Here are some environmental issues hospitals and other healthcare providers face:
Solid Waste Stacks Up
Each day, hospitals produce 25 pounds of waste per patient, according to the Sustainability Roadmap for Hospitals website. That comes to 7,000 tons a day with up to 85% of its municipal solid waste – garbage – the same you’d see in trash bins of a hotel.
Put another way, each patient produces 20 pounds of garbage a day, or four times what each of us usually generate, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
About 60% of the garbage can be composted or recycled, the roadmap group’s website said.
Medical Waste is Environmentally Taxing
But 15% of a hospital’s waste can’t go into the trash or compost pile. Regulated medical waste that most know as red bag waste can cost 10 to 100 times more to dispose of than solid waste and uses such environmentally-taxing methods as incineration.
But hospitals often mix half to 70% of their normal garbage with the regulated material, frequently tossing in paper, cardboard and food waste, according to the Healthcare Environmental Resource Center.
Simple steps such as segregating paper towels, coffee cups, pizza boxes or packaging can help cut the medical waste by up to half, the center’s website said. So can covering medical waste containers to prevent tossing in normal trash and putting up signs showing what goes where.
Energy Use is a Quick Fix
In addition to being large buildings, hospitals are packed with energy devouring equipment and heating, cooling and lighting used around the clock.
According to a report for the Consortium for Energy Efficiency, hospital electricity costs an average of $1.67 a square foot.
Coal, oil and natural gas, three major fuels used to generate electricity, produce massive amounts of carbon dioxide. Every kilowatt hour of electricity from coal produces 2,249 pounds of CO2 and natural gas produces 1,135 pounds, according to the EPA.
Most electricity goes to heating or cooling and medical facilities might shave 10% of those costs by adjusting and maintaining the systems.
Energy Star, the federal program that rates appliance energy efficiency, doesn’t list hospital equipment but a study is looking at devices such as MRI, CAT scans and X-ray.
Hazardous Materials Require Extra Attention
Not even counting medical waste, there is a lot of toxic stuff in a hospital, such as pharmaceuticals, mercury, radioactive compounds and even cleaning agents, though they account for about 5% of the waste.
Different materials have different disposal methods, but in general hospitals can reduce the amount used or wasted with some basic steps such as looking for alternatives, buying pre-measured amounts to reduce measuring and pouring, and changing inventory control, the Healthcare Environmental Resource Center’s website said.
Some cleaning materials are considered hazardous waste and medical centers are testing green cleaning products for cleaning patient rooms, according to the Health Career Advancement Program website.
Pharmaceuticals present a different problem because using less or finding substitutes are not sound options, the resource center site said.
Water Conservation is Critical
Hospitals can use from about 200 gallons to more than 800 gallons a day per bed with only about 25% of that going down sinks or toilets.
Based on the work of environmental scientists and engineers, medical facilities have developed water reduction programs that cut use up to 30% with steps such as educating workers, fixing leaks, maintaining cooling towers, efficiently watering landscaping or changing how equipment is sterilized.
Green design standards that include efficient water use are part of new buildings but some measures can also be applied to existing construction.
And as water becomes more scarce hospitals may be among other industries forced by regulations to reduce water use.