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Nurses Help Shape Environmentally-Friendly Practices in Healthcare

April 2013

In recent decades, environmental sustainability has become an increasingly prominent topic across almost every industry in the country. From efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, to finding better ways to dispose of hazardous chemicals, the healthcare industry has been at the forefront of this shift in thinking and practice. Nurses in particular are playing an important role in ensuring hospitals and other healthcare settings implement sustainable practices.

According to Practice Greenhealth, a non-profit organization that provides environmental solutions for greener workplaces in the healthcare community, packaging waste is one of the highest contributors to a hospital’s total waste. Because of that, the organization advises healthcare facilities to evaluate ways to reduce excess packaging to help decrease their impact on the environment.

“Years ago, hospitals started moving from reusable packaged supplies to single-use products in order to improve infection control in the hospital setting,” said Laura Wenger, RN, and executive director of Practice Greenhealth in Chicago, Ill. “But what’s really interesting is that many hospitals are actually reverting back to reusables now that we are more effectively resterilizing equipment – this not only reduces the risk of spreading infections, but it also lowers our overall impact on the environment considering the thousands of hospitals using so much of these supplies every day.”

Another emerging concern in the hospital setting relates to the chemicals often used in cleaning and sterilization in hospitals. Not only are certain hazardous chemicals harmful to the environment, but they can also sometimes pose health risks to those who spend a lot of time around them.

“Recently there has been more focus on how we avoid compromising the health of nurses when it comes to possible chemical exposure,” said Wenger. “While patient safety is our number one priority, nurses – being in the hospital on an ongoing basis – could be prone to prolonged exposure and greater risks. Switching to more environmentally-friendly cleaning products can help shrink our footprint and keep nurses healthy at the same time.”

In addition to potential environmental concerns and health risks, transforming a hospital into a more sustainable facility can bring significant cost savings. According to Wenger, there are several steps that nurses and other healthcare providers can take to implement “green” practices, while also in some cases generating savings for their hospital or healthcare facility.

“Take the biohazard disposal regulated medical waste containers, for example – it costs a hospital several times more to have one of those containers’ bags removed from a facility than it does a regular trash bag. When these containers are put in the wrong areas, they get filled up with paper towels and other non-contaminated trash. Making small adjustments like this can amount to huge savings when these things happen on a daily basis, and hospital managers need to know when these kinds of mistakes are happening,” said Wenger.

So what role can nurses play to help healthcare become more sustainable in the next 30 years? Nurses are encouraged to act as leaders and speak directly to management regarding environmental issues that concern them.

“Nurses are the heart, blood and soul of any healthcare facility, and they are critical in pushing any kind of change since they are so involved at every level,” said Wenger. “Nurses are the ones who are using equipment and making recommendations to the materials managers, so it’s up to them to communicate effectively when they find areas for improvement.”

To learn more about Practice Greenhealth and how you can help your hospital implement sustainable, eco-friendly practices, visit www.practicegreenhealth.org.

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