From hybrid cars to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” the pro-environmental movement has become a mainstream sensation. The quest to go green has entered the health care industry, with hospital materials management executives at the helm of many changes.
By purchasing eco-friendly materials, hospitals have the unique opportunity to support environmental health as they care for patient health. Going green means adopting policies that preserve the environment.
Mary Crawford, associate director of procurement and supply chain management for Duke University and Duke University Health System, says, “Greening is never ending. It takes tiny, tiny steps and makes such a huge impact. The small changes hospitals make to go green create significant environmental benefits such as conserved water and limited toxic waste.”
In hospital materials management, going green is purchasing environmentally preferable products. It encompasses everything from buying coffee mugs instead of disposable cups to choosing alternatives to mercury products.
The health care industry is flooded with product options detrimental to the environment. Hazardous chemicals, plastics made with PVC/DEHP, products containing mercury, disposable items and food with antibiotics or added hormones are all products with environmentally preferable alternatives.
Why go green?
The rationale for going green is twofold. Clearly, the positive effects on the environment are a key driver for purchasing green materials. However, the advantages of buying green spread not only to the environment, but also to the hospital.
Green materials provide myriad environmental benefits. They can replace toxic materials that may be harmful to people or animals. Also, some products save energy and water, while others limit solid waste and manufacturing releases.
Going green also provides hospitals with financial benefits. For instance, reducing a hospital’s dependence on hazardous material reduces hazardous-waste disposal costs. Personal protective equipment costs also drop when hazardous materials are limited.
Additionally, using green materials creates a healthier environment for patients, workers and employees through reduced exposure to cleaners, solvents, paints and other hazardous substances.
Furthermore, with the recent popularity of environmental causes, adopting greener materials can be a major boost to a hospital’s image.
Using green materials fosters positive external publicity and community support when data on a hospital’s environmental efforts are released to the public.
When a hospital commits to going green, gaining the acceptance of key personnel is essential. Assembling an environmentally preferable purchasing (EPP) team is a great starting point.
This team should include members from all departments who use the products in question, a member of upper management and employees with a passion for environmental causes.
The team should be the catalyst for green purchasing habits at the hospital. It should be responsible for brainstorming about possible areas for environmentally preferable purchasing, prioritizing product categories, researching environmentally preferable product specifications on group purchasing organization (GPO) contracts, developing product pilots for any green products adopted and promoting the benefits of green purchasing throughout the hospital.
An EPP team does not necessarily need to be a newly formed team. Instead, an existing purchasing or environmental committee can take on the task of environmentally preferable purchasing.
While the EPP team should be a primary motivator for other staff in adjusting to new products, other methods of motivation should be used. To foster enthusiasm for the newly green policies companywide, be sure to communicate the changes in hospital newsletters or e-mails.
In addition to the work of the EPP team, encourage employee participation by establishing an awards program for staff members who propose fruitful ideas for environmentally preferable purchasing projects.
Team-based incentive programs, such as giving movie tickets to departments that order or use the most green products, are also effective.
Product of the environment
Once a team is on board, it’s time to choose products to adopt. Begin by creating lists of chemicals or materials you wish to avoid, both as product ingredients and on their own.
This list should provide purchasing guidelines. Hospitals for a Healthy Environment (H2E, now known as Practice Greenhealth), Lyme, N.H., a not-for-profit organization championing the greening of health care, provides suggestions on where to start (www.h2e-online.org).
Existing product lists and research directories are great places to look for green- product options. The H2E Products and Services Directory provides a complete list of reputable companies offering products that support mercury elimination, waste reduction and toxic substance minimization.
Choosing the right companies to provide green products is essential. Select vendors that will work with you to track supply spend and value of green products. Also, incorporate wording into contracts that supports the procurement of green products.
With many companies making green claims, it’s important to find a company that can deliver green products. Requesting customer references can help ensure your supplier is reputable.
Also, cross-referencing Web sites such as www.ecolabeling.org can provide an overview of green terminology to help guide purchase decisions.
Another important step in product selection is asking for evidence of environmental performance. Vendors should be able to objectively prove that their product does not contain any ingredients that your pro-green purchasing plan forbids.
According to H2E’s guide to “Getting Started with EPP,” vendors should also be able to give information regarding environmental benefits, demonstration of indoor air quality measures, any required personal protective equipment or special handling/disposal requirements, disposal options, and changes in operations necessary to use the product.
To ensure effective greening processes, hospitals can employ the help of outside organizations such as providers that supply green products, and groups such as H2E that work with hospitals to implement green initiatives.
Sticking to quality
Patient care, not environmental protection, is the primary objective of the hospital. Consequently, purchasing environmentally preferable products should never come at a cost to product quality.
Using third-party environmental certification as a guideline can lend credibility to purchasing choices and help ensure product excellence.
For example, certain products such as refrigerators or vending machines can be limited to products that are Energy Star qualified. Likewise, choosing only Green Seal certified chemicals gives assurance that products will have clear environmental benefits.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines (www.epa.gov/cpg) for recycled content also can be useful in evaluating green products. For stationery and letterhead, Forest Stewardship Council-certified, recycled paper is ideal.
When choosing green food products, look for products approved by the Food and Drug Administration or the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Also look for the following label claims:
- Poultry and meat products: Raised without antibiotics, or no antibiotics administered
- Beef and lamb: Raised without added hormones, or no hormones added
- Products made from corn, soy, canola or their derivatives: No genetically engineered ingredients
- Milk products: rBGH-free, rBST-free, or similar statement
- Products from beef cattle, dairy cattle and lamb: Grass-fed
Other third-party approvals to look for include: USDA Certified Organic, Food Alliance Certified, Rainforest Alliance Certified, Protected Harvest, Fair Trade Certified, Bird Friendly, Certified Humane Raised and Handled, Animal Welfare Approved, Salmon Safe, Marine Stewardship Council and Certified Compostable.
When purchasing green food products, patients and employees consuming the food reap benefits and there is less impact on the environment. Purchasing certified compostable products limits waste, whereas items without antibiotics or added hormones are healthy alternatives.
Some environmentally unsound practices do more than harm the planet—they can be a hit to the hospital’s bottom line as well. Therefore, reducing the use of hazardous chemicals reduces hazardous waste and limits waste disposal costs.
Generally, purchasing is usually focused on up-front product costs. As a result, purchasing does not always consider long-term costs such as disposal, insurance and training.
H2E suggests that to appreciate the full benefit of green purchasing, use total cost assessment procedures as much as possible. By considering costs and savings over the entire life of the product, the benefits of environmentally preferable purchasing can be achieved. Duke has realized the financial benefits of going green. Since it began its medical instrument reprocessing program in 2004, it has saved 40 percent on medical instruments.
Also, Duke practices green housekeeping, including the use of green cleaning chemicals and microfiber mops. While these mops cost slightly more up front, they reduce water costs, and heads can be washed repeatedly.
Some environmentally preferable products are more expensive than their non-green alternatives. However, there are opportunities for hospitals to save money in the long run by using green products.
Andrea Myrick, green purchasing program coordinator at Duke, anticipates that green product prices will decrease in the next five to 10 years due to increased demand.
As more hospitals demand green products, suppliers will make more environmentally preferable items available, driving down prices.
By providing large-scale access to green products, GPOs drive large-scale acceptance of greening initiatives. Also, working through a GPO provides the opportunity to use existing environmentally preferable contracts.
Many GPOs work with their hospital clients to contract for such environmentally friendly items as PVC-free products and devices, mercury-free alternatives, items with special packaging that decreases waste, reusable products and devices, and items made from recycled materials. They also contract for other environmentally preferable items such as organic food products and reusable sharps containers. By making these products available, GPOs propel the adoption of green materials at their member hospitals. With the green movement going strong, environmentally preferable purchasing will remain an important component of hospital materials management.
As demand for environmentally preferable products increases, so in turn will their availability. With greater demand and GPO backing, green materials can become a mainstay in the health care industry.
Douglas Smith is the senior director, capital resource program and supply chain services, University Healthsystem Consortium, Oak Brook, IL.
This article first appeared in the May 2008 issue of Materials Management in Health Care.