Skip to main content

5 ways hospitals can launch effective recycling programs for single-use products

Dignity Health's sustainability leader on how the health care giant put circular economy ideals into practice.

By the nature of their work, it is no surprise that hospitals produce millions of tons of waste annually.

According to Practice Greenhealth, surgical departments are some of the worst offenders, producing up to 33 percent of total hospital waste. As institutions dedicated to making and keeping the population well, hospitals have begun to pay more attention to how they can curtail their waste and institute more environmentally friendly practices. Not only does adopting these practices help the environment, it also can have the added benefit of trimming costs and increasing employee engagement. 

Dignity Health — the fifth largest health system in the nation, comprising 39 hospitals across California, Arizona and Nevada — has a long history of implementing innovative sustainability efforts, guided by the belief that a healthy environment leads to healthy people. As Dignity Health’s vice president of corporate responsibility, my role — and passion — is cultivating programs that will improve the experience of our employees and patients, and make a positive impact on the broader community and environment. In 2014, I had the opportunity to launch an extremely rewarding program: an effort to recycle our used sterilization wrap, a single-use product designed to maintain the sterility of surgical instruments until use in the operating room.

Often those on the front lines have the most practical and creative ideas as they are closest to the work.
 During the process of getting the program up and running, we developed five strategies that can be applied universally to effectively implement new sustainability efforts in the hospital setting:
  1. Cast a wide net: When attempting to tackle a sustainability challenge, gather ideas from staff members across your facilities departments. Each will have a unique perspective based on role and goals. And be sure to engage all levels of employees; often those on the front lines have the most practical and creative ideas as they are closest to the work. Dignity Health discovered from a colleague, the Blue Renew Wrap Recycling program, developed by Halyard Health. For hospitals committed to wrap recycling, the program provides specialized education and in-service training to help facilities meet their recycling objectives in an efficient, cost-effective way.
  2. Secure executive buy-in: Engage hospital leadership as you gather feedback and develop your proposed solution. Leaders will have a unique perspective around current and future organizational plans and priorities, and will serve as your advocate. Use data to demonstrate how your sustainability program answers a critical business need or sustainability goal.
  3. Create healthy competition: Once you have begun your sustainability initiative, a great way to generate engagement at all levels is to create an environment of friendly competition and tap into people’s natural desire to compete against others and themselves. When we initially launched the program over three years ago, only four hospitals participated. Today, 32 hospitals participate in the challenge. This has helped to foster a positive, collaborative culture, where colleagues can rally around doing something positive for their health, the health of their patients and the environment. 
  4. Track, track, track: Be sure to keep track of the progress and, when possible, quantify this progress to show the return on the investments made. In our first year of Blue Renew, we recycled over 213,000 pounds of sterilization wrap. The following year, the staff challenged itself to do even better and engaged in competition across hospitals to increase the amount of wrap recycled. The results speak for themselves: at the end of 2017, we collectively recycled 250,000 pounds of wrap. In 2018, we anticipate recycling over 125 tons of wrap collectively across the network.
  5. Think circular: In today’s world, sustainability means more than simply recycling a product. It means ensuring that a product has a second life through redesign and reentry. Thanks to a new partnership between Halyard Health and Sustainable Solutions LLC, an organization that converts recycled goods into new products, our sterilization wrap is collected and transformed into a material called BlueCON resin, used to create sustainable hospital products such as tote bags, garbage bins, bedpans and basins. In addition to wrap recycling, Dignity Health sought a solution that would benefit the local community. We partnered with a network of recyclers that were able to keep the wrap free from harsh chemicals to allow for reuse locally, rendering the recycled material safe enough to be used again to make new products.

If I have learned anything through our efforts to make our facilities more sustainable, it’s that anyone can do it. The barrier to entry is low, and the benefits far outweigh the risks to implementation. Above all else, the beneficiaries in the end are not only patients but those working in the organization and the communities they serve. 

More on this topic

More by This Author