Lessons from one of the country’s greenest hospitals on how to make less waste part of the culture.
"Can we be zero-waste someday? " ponders Kai Abelkis. "I don’t see why not—I’d like to get to a point where all materials are made from a vegetable product. " Abelkis has been Boulder Community Hospital’s full-time sustainability coordinator since 2002. (In 1999, he began his mission with the hospital part-time, putting in 10 hours a week as the recycling manager.) It’s Abelkis’s can-do attitude and call to do "the right thing " that keep him motivated. When asked if he has a green team, Abelkis replies, "Yes, we have 2,400 employees on our green team. " He’s referring to the entire staff of the 250-bed nonprofit hospital spread over three campuses. Known as one of the greenest hospitals in the country, Boulder Community Hospital strives to keep waste out of landfills each day.
That’s a tall order considering hospitals in the United States produce more than 5.9 million tons of waste annually—that’s about 6,600 tons of waste each day. When waste ends up in landfills, it produces methane, which is a greenhouse gas with six times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. Boulder Community Hospital has managed to reduce waste by 42 percent by recycling, reusing, or eliminating waste altogether. Babies are changed with cloth diapers instead of disposable counterparts. The cafeteria uses china plates and stainless flatware opposed to plastic forks, knives, and spoons. Paper towels go into bags made of cornstarch and when full, they are picked up by EcoCycle for composting. Food scraps are also scraped into compost bins. Medical instruments used in the operating rooms are sent to Stryker Sustainability for reprocessing, and Abelkis has been working with the hospital’s distribution vendor, PHS, to switch to reusable totes.
A lot has changed in the past 10 years since Abelkis’s position became full time. In the early 1990s, a group of concerned nurses, doctors, janitors, and cafeteria workers came together to simply start a recycling effort. "Back then nurses used to take cans and paper home to recycle, " notes Abelkis. "Those are the only items the community could handle 20 years ago—today we are reaching into every aspect of sustainability: energy efficiency, water, and waste reduction. " Today the hospital’s day-to-day operations are based on sustainable principles. The hospital exceeds all environmental laws and regulations, supports and encourages recycling of materials, minimizes waste, and ensures that contaminated waste is disposed of in a safe and responsible manner. The hospital also seeks, evaluates, and implements methodologies that limit the use of non-renewable resources, and purchases products that contain recycled materials, are recyclable or reusable, and cause the least environmental harm during manufacturing, use, and disposal.
But Abelkis feels it is naïve if one just looks at what the hospital is recycling or reusing. He also looks at how the hospital is achieving these amazing goals. "We have changed the culture at the hospital—today, sustainability is our culture, " he notes. "And it’s the individual’s responsibility to take ownership in this culture. " Abelkis insists this action can only happen when there is a narrative. Hospitals need to ask, "What is the purpose behind recycling and reducing waste? " For Abelkis, it comes down to promoting the health of the patient as well as human health in the community. He feels hospitals need to be deliberate in their decision-making process. "We need to take the oath ‘Do No Harm’ and truly follow it, " he says. "Engage the hospital staff and create relationships. People want to do the right thing, and if you empower your staff and listen to their problems and how they find solutions, then you can share that knowledge. " He believes the real emphasis should not be put on "best practices " or that sustainability is "special, " but that it should be part of the normal day-to-day operations—part of the culture. Abelkis knows firsthand that the hospital can affect what happens outside by saying "no " to unsustainable products and practices. "We are finally getting manufacturers to listen to us—they have embraced sustainability, and they are starting to ask us questions about how they can make a more sustainable product or how they can reduce packaging waste, " says Abelkis. "Our GPO Novation has taken a huge step toward integrating sustainability into the health care industry. " Abelkis is particularly grateful to Jennifer Waddell, who leads the Novation Environmental Advisory Committee, for making sustainability a priority and setting the tone. As Socrates said, "To move the world, we must first move ourselves. " And Abelkis inspires others to do so everyday.
The Three R’s
By prescribing to the thee R’s—reduce, reuse, recycle—since 1990, Boulder Community Hospital has saved 4,524,300 gallons of water, 2,848,400 kilowatt hours of electricity, 11,000 trees, and eliminated 39,100 pounds of pollutants and 5,000 yards of landfill materials. The hospital’s efforts include:
- Commingled containers
- Light bulbs
- Office paks
- Old linens
- Packing peanuts
- Tyvek envelopes
- X-ray-related materials
- Alcohol from the lab
- All packing materials
- Computer parts
- Interoffice envelopes
- Materials from the Surgery Department (smocks, IV bottles, trays)
- Packaging from MRI film
- Printer cartridges
- Medical equipment
- Wheelchairs and crutches
Reducing waste by
- Composting landscaping debris
- Issuing free ECO bus passes and encouraging alternative transportation
- Purchasing mercury-free thermometers and blood pressure gauges
- Using cloth diapers instead of disposable diapers
- Using energy-efficient light bulbs
- Using real silverware and dishes in the cafeteria