How Hospitals are Leading the Way in Recycling

Sustainability is more critical than ever before in the drive to improve global environmental health, and many hospitals across the nation are leading the way when it comes to recycling. Helping to improve and maintain clean neighborhoods and communities in their areas, hospitals implement a vast array of methods, practices, technologies, and systems to maintain their recycling programs.
In addition, hospitals are turning to prominent companies to help recycle materials that have traditionally been considered difficult to reuse, like Styrofoam and some plastics. Agilyx is one such company. Located in Tigard, Oregon, Agilyx is an energy company that was the first in the world to convert difficult-to-recycle plastics into crude oil. While partnerships with companies is an important factor in the success of a hospital’s ability to successfully recycle, it’s most distinguished driver in the success of any program is employee contribution.

The top recycling hospitals in the nation allow numerous opportunities for staff input and involvement in their programs, which in turn contribute to the benefits of hospital recycling; these benefits are wide-ranging and include everything from reduced operational costs and enhanced community relations to generating revenue, increasing worker safety, and more.

Case Study in Recycling: HealthPartners

HealthPartners, an award-winning integrated health care system in Minnesota, currently serves over one million patients with a team of almost 23,000 employees. In 2016, the company recycled 1,300 tons of single-stream materials and 23 tons of blue wrap, in addition to donating 55 tons of medical equipment, office furniture, and medical supplies. In that year alone, HealthPartners kept almost 4,000 tons of trash out of landfills.

How are they doing it?

There are several committees that meet on a regular basis, from the Sustainability Steering Committee to the Green Teams, the Community Relations teams, and more. The groups represent various roles within healthcare, from pharmacy, real estate, and human resources to operations, nutrition, and well-being programs. All the committees meet and interact to formulate and execute goals and strategies for increased sustainability and recycling for the company.

Another factor of HealthPartners’ success in recycling is the amount of brainstorming, trial and error, and extensive and varied training that goes on. From team meetings to site visits and from live sorting events to awards programs, there are several channels the teams use at HealthPartners to keep its programs going and growing.

What Hospitals are Doing with Recycling

A workshop at CleanMed hosted by the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC) and Practice Greenhealth took a look at the realities of running sustainability and recycling programs at hospitals in late 2017; the focus of their findings rested on HealthPartners and two additional hospital systems who have made impressive achievements with their respective programs.

Gundersen Health System

Andy Kragness is the Environmental Compliance Lead for Gundersen, a physician-led not-for-profit healthcare system that is repeatedly named one of the top 50 hospitals in the country. The company’s recycling program began with just paper and cardboard, but has now grown to include blue wrap, plastics, and more. In 2016, Gundersen achieved a 54% recycle rate for the solid waste stream at its La Crosse Campus, saving the organization about $70,000! One way that Kragness tailored the recycling program to employees was to literally walk in the staff’s shoes; he realized the staff was under the impression that more recycling meant more work for them. His Environmental Compliance department literally walked with housekeeping staff, mapping their flow, and doing the same with the nursing staff.

These walks enabled strategic and convenient placement of recycling bins and cans, along with methods that integrated right into the hospital’s existing flow. The staff began to regularly make suggestions regarding recycling efforts, and special attention was given to the challenge of having limited space available – so careful planning was needed. Some of the resulting changes included having two narrow bins (one for trash, one for recycling) occupy a space that formerly housed just one large trash bin. In addition, since they didn’t have space for a larger onsite compacter, they instead upped the collection frequency to maintain flow. The teams also perform regular audits of bins and trash to enable successful program modification where it’s needed.

The Mayo Clinic

Mayo Clinic’s plastics recycling program began back in 2013, after staff members frequently requested to recycle healthcare plastics. From 2016-2017, the program saw a 78% increase in the #5, #6, and #7 plastics that were recycled. Glen Goodsell, Recycling Coordinator of the Mayo Clinic, explains that this facility is unique in that it is its own recycler. The Mayo Clinic processes materials on-site, and three recycling trucks make 50 stops at the docks every day. The Mayo Clinic also has its own recycling center, where contents are stored until they are sorted by employees. There are 13 categories of materials that are handled – the facility also has its own grinder and baler on-site, and they can sell materials directly to end users for reuse.

This is not to say that the Mayo Clinic doesn’t contend with its own set of challenges and hurdles. Space is an issue, as is the sheer volume and complexity of materials. Infection prevention is another concern, so groups that focus on the issue are given seats at the “decision making table” during meetings. The Mayo Clinic has found that by doing this, much insight is gained, inventory control can be practiced, and feasible methods and procedures can be implemented. In addition, the teams go from lab to lab explaining new processes and changes to train staff in person.

Hospital Recycling: Tips from the Leaders

The best way to implement a new program or improve an existing one is to gather information from various people who have “been there and done that” already. Andy Kragness from Gundersen recommends that hospitals pay attention to terminology (his example was his team avoiding using the word “comingled” because a lot of people weren’t familiar with the term). He encourages big-picture thinking and making the issues real for staff members (like reminding them that someone else down the line will have to handle materials that aren’t recycled), and he advises that heads of recycle programs talk to people in-person about materials and recycling. Lean on useful design, like strategically placed receptacles, keep staff engaged and motivated, and incorporate waste audits, he suggests.

The Sustainability Steering Committee at HealthPartners suggests to everyone who is facing an uphill battle with hospital recycling to “be patient, but not hesitant.” Connecting your program with the mission of your organization can greatly increase the participation and engagement of your employees.

The Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council offers ample tips, information, and more at the official HPRC website. The group provides specific information for hospitals and medical groups wishing to begin a new healthcare recycling program, as well.

Making It Work

When all is said and done, every hospital is unique, so the best approach to implementing/growing your hospital recycling program is to find unique ways to work with what you have; create a specific program that works for your situation. “We all have a responsibility to better manage waste,” explains Susanne Backer, Circular Economy Project Manager at Aarhus University Hospital.

Klaus Stadler, Director of HPRC Europe, agrees. “There is an increasing expectation on businesses to take responsibility for after-life of their products,” he states. “We see tremendous opportunity within the healthcare industry to develop solutions that are consistent with these expectations and that seek to optimize plastic resource use and re-use.”

With facilities in the country generating almost 14,000 tons of waste per day, the need for hospitals to recycle and reuse as much as possible has reached a critical stage. For more information and ideas for your facility recycling program, visit HPRC’s Solutions for Hospitals page

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