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Employees: A Powerful Force in Sustainability

Sustainability often begins with passionate employees. “Health care is full of passionate people. The place is teeming with individuals who want to do this work,” said Janet Howard, director of facility engagement at Practice Greenhealth (PGH), a non-profit membership organization. At the beginning of her career, when Howard was conducting hospital waste audits, she was struck by the fact that no matter which unit she was in or what care was being delivered, “Everybody, from waste handlers to food service people, nurses and surgeons — they all had opinions about what we could do to improve our environmental performance.”

In some cases, hospital executives are not even aware of these “green champions,” but, Howard said, “They’re out there, whether they have been identified or not, because they see the work as an extension of health and healthy communities and healthy people.” In fact, when administrators tell Howard that their institutions aren’t doing anything about sustainability, she generally hands them a self-assessment checklist developed by PGH. Once they start talking to employees, often the administrators quickly discover examples of sustainability they never knew existed — a cook who has started a community garden on the hospital grounds, for example, a doctor championing reusable plastic sharps containers, or a nurse who is collecting unopened suture packs that would normally be thrown out and sending them to Haiti.

Sometimes these individuals drive important changes on their own. Keith Sutter, director of medical device sustainability at Johnson & Johnson, tells the story of a packaging engineer who questioned the widely held belief that regulations prohibited the use of recycled material in medical device packaging. This one dedicated advocate had the commitment, perseverance and the knowledge needed to push changes all the way through the system, resulting in significantly greener packaging for an important surgical product.

Generally though, said Kathy Gerwig, vice president of employee safety, health andwellness at Kaiser Permanente, “The organizations that are successful in bringing environmental stewardship into their health care programs all have interdisciplinary teams that guide the work.”

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