How to Make Your Healthcare Practice More Environmentally Sustainable

The healthcare industry is among the most carbon-intensive service sectors. So how can you shrink your practice’s eco-footprint? We summarize practical, achievable action items to reduce your impact on the environment. 

Sustainability in Healthcare

In summer 2021, Jackson LLP’s 16-year-old Student Fellow, Hanna Lindroth, traveled to Costa Rica to participate in a Women in STEM program focused on environmental sustainability. Through this opportunity, she experienced firsthand the Central American country’s unique sustainability efforts. 

“Consumption in Costa Rica is more thoughtful,” Hanna observed. “There is a deeper care for the environment and how we impact it. While the government in Costa Rica’s past has not always been so environmentally conscious, they are working very hard today to restore the natural ecosystems of their land.”

Student Fellow Hanna Lindroth in Costa Rica

Like many teens, Hanna implores her elders to pay more attention to environmental issues. She views protecting the environment as urgent and offers Costa Rica as a model for action. “We need to adopt this mindset here and remember where what we have comes from and how it will exist in the future.” 

In Costa Rica, many farms and small businesses function as carbon neutral with closed cycles. In other words, they reuse the waste they create and function with a net carbon footprint of zero. For example, some farms have what is called a biodigester. Biodigesters take human and animal waste and then collect methane gas to be burned in the kitchen or used as other forms of energy, filter the water for reuse, and create fertilizer for the plants. All food and plant waste is composted and turned into fertilizer. Meanwhile, solar power, wind power, and hydropower support much of Costa Rica’s energy grid. 

Pollution in the U.S. Healthcare Industry

While the medical industry saves lives, we rarely think about its environmental effects and how they will affect people further down the line. Thus, you may be surprised to learn that the healthcare industry is among the most carbon-intensive service sectors in the industrialized world.

According to a study published in Environmental Research Letters, the industry contributes roughly 4.5% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions and similar fractions of toxic air pollutants. In addition, the study noted that the U.S. healthcare system is responsible for about a quarter of all global healthcare greenhouse gas emissions, the highest of any nation. 

Moreover, the problem is growing. Yale Professor Dr. Jodi Sherman, in her 2013 study, estimated that greenhouse gas emissions from the healthcare sector grew 30% over the previous decade. These emissions account for 9.8% of the national total and exceed those of the entire United Kingdom.

And here’s a disturbing twist: Dr. Sherman’s study found that for the year 2013, health damages from the pollutants from healthcare emissions were at 470,000 “disability-adjusted life years” (DALYs) — a measure of years lost due to illness, disability, or early death. In short, the health damages arising from U.S. healthcare pollution were on par with those from deaths arising from preventable medical errors. Ultimately, pollution partially negates the efforts of the healthcare industry to save lives.

We all know that a clinical practice creates a lot of unavoidable waste. Therefore, it’s critical to find every opportunity to cut down on consumption or limit its impact on the environment. Will your practice be a part of the problem or work towards the solution?

The Main Focuses of Addressing Sustainability

When assessing your own business’s impact on the environment, look at these four main factors:

  • Waste
  • Electricity Use
  • Pollution
  • Consumption

And a central question you want to ask is, “How do I become carbon neutral?” If you can cut down on all four of the factors above, you will become more sustainable. 

Best Practices for Healthcare Offices

After her Costa Rica trip, Hanna audited Jackson LLP’s law firm operations and identified areas where our offices could become more sustainable. As we began to implement her recommendations, we noted how well they could apply to our healthcare clients. Here, we share action items to reduce your healthcare practice’s environmental footprint.

Use a Sustainable Energy Source 

Allowing your practice to run on renewable clean energy such as solar, wind, or hydro will reduce your carbon footprint significantly. There are many different ways to get started with renewable energy depending on where you live, and the energy you choose will depend on your budget and consumption. But ultimately, switching to a clean energy source for your business is one of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint. You may also have the capacity to invest in the green energy industry, another great way to cut your footprint while making money as the market for renewable energy grows.

Compost

Establish a system of composting — converting organic waste materials into fertilizer instead of sending them to landfills, where they will biodegrade more slowly. 

The best way to compost varies place by place and depends on your needs. If your practice has a garden or plants that could use the compost, there are many ways to set up an in-office composting system. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers a handy guide to composting.

Meanwhile, if you do not want to keep the fertilizer, the way to compost varies by city, but there are both public and private composting programs everywhere that will pick up your organic waste and compost it for you. 

Cut Down on Waste

Eliminate all waste that is not medically necessary. The best way to curb climate change is to curb human consumption. What products do you buy single-use that you could eliminate? Every time you purchase or use a product, ask yourself, “Is this necessary?” 

Buy Sustainably

For what you must buy, think about everything that went into this product and where it will go. Always try to purchase what is compostable or recyclable. As you would expect, single-use products create much of the waste for healthcare facilities. However, engineers are working to create sustainable alternatives to these products. 

Products like gloves, facemasks, and gowns can all be made to be biodegradable. If you use disposable plates, cups, and silverware around the office, buy compostable versions instead. And common office products like toilet paper, cleaning products, and printing paper can all be bought eco-friendly. Consider the footprint of every product you buy and consider when you can go greener. Here are a few sources for more eco-friendly supplies:

Limit Water Consumption

Healthcare facilities are very water-intensive. To lower your water bill and reduce your impact on the environment, install low-flow toilets, faucets, and showerheads, replace flush valves on toilets and outdated pump systems, and fix leaks immediately. You may also want to consider other water conservation projects like collecting rainwater (used for plants or other non-drinking purposes).

Offer Virtual Care When Possible

Telehealth visits reduce the amount of transportation and equipment needed for an appointment. This, in turn, reduces the fossil fuels burned and pollution created from that appointment. Telehealth has been lifesaving during the pandemic emergency and can continue to provide convenient, environmentally-friendly medical services long after the emergency ends. Just be sure to mind the legal issues and maintain your standards of care.

Reduce Paper Consumption

To reduce your use of paper, store documents and data online and transfer it to patients electronically. When you do need paper, buy green and always make sure you are recycling that paper again. 

Encourage Your Staff and Patients to Ditch the Car

The alternatives to driving, such as riding the bus, riding your bike, walking, and taking the train, are better for the environment. With public transportation, the fossil fuels burned to transport each person are significantly reduced. Walking and biking burn none at all. Try offering your team lunch for riding their bikes to work, or consider covering public transportation costs for staff and patients. By creating incentives to make their transportation greener, you can reduce your carbon footprint.

Plant Native Pollinator-Friendly Plants

Are you thinking about the perfect office decor or looking for the best way to liven up your building’s courtyard? Consider plants! Not only do they make your space more appealing, but they provide necessary services to all ecosystems. By planting pollinator-friendly plants, you support some of the most important species to human life. Pollinators help produce a majority of our food, and yet we neglect them. It is also important to plant native plants as they are significantly better for your local ecosystem.

Buy Second-Hand Furniture for Your Office

Every purchase you make has an environmental impact. When you buy second-hand, you rescue items that would have become waste and decrease the demand for new products. You can find clean, quality furniture at lower prices at thrift stores or local garage sales, and you can feel good about doing it.

Use “Green” Web Hosting Services

It shocked us to learn that the internet produces almost as much pollution as the airline industry. Green web hosting is a more environmentally friendly way to host websites. The goal of most green web hosting companies is to reduce your carbon footprint on the internet. Green web hosting companies purchase renewable energy credits to offset the energy used by your website. In this way, a website becomes carbon neutral or even carbon negative.

You Can Have an Impact

Every improvement that we make right now could have a huge future impact on our planet. Climate change threatens to become a crisis that affects our lives and people all over the world every day. 

Around Jackson LLP’s Evanston office, Hanna is always upbeat and optimistic. Nonetheless, she worries about the future. “When I think about what my life will look like, I see the ongoing threat of climate change growing more and more dire until we cannot possibly protect ourselves. Just because we ignore a problem does not make it go away,” she says. “To save our planet, we must act now, and we must act fast.”

This blog is made for educational purposes and is not intended to be specific legal advice to any particular person. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between our firm and the reader. It should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.

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