In a February feature story, PBS NewsHour covered Health Care Without Harm’s mission to reduce the environmental footprint of the health care sector, along with the cutting edge sustainability initiatives of Practice Greenhealth members Cleveland Clinic, Gundersen Health System, and Mayo Clinic.
The article shines a spotlight on Health Care Without Harm’s beginnings over 20 years ago when the Environmental Protection Agency released a report that found that incinerators used by many hospitals throughout the United States were a top of emitter of harmful air pollutants, including mercury and dioxin, and on Health Care Without Harm’s success in working hand in hand with hospitals to reduce toxic waste that was making people sick.
“When Health Care Without Harm started, there were some 4,500 medical incinerators in the United States. As of 2010, there were only 57, according to an EPA report,” the article explains.
It also features innovations by Practice Greenhealth hospitals to reduce waste and transition to more sustainable forms of disposal, which helped launch a movement for more sustainable health care in the U.S. and globally:
- Gundersen Health started a sustainable waste management system for health care centers throughout in 2009, diverting 345 pounds of controlled pharmaceutical waste from sewer systems within the first six months of that year. Gundersen spent less than $10,000 on hazardous waste disposal in 2015 – down from $151,000 in 2009 – at hospitals throughout Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
- Cleveland Clinic facilities stopped using incinerators 10 years ago in favor of steam-processing treatments. Jon Utech, senior director of Cleveland Clinic’s Office for a Healthy Environment, said they’re constantly working to get the market to respond to demands for more sustainable waste practices. “We try to push on supply chain partners to make the products they provide for us more and more recyclable,” he said.
- More than 31 percent of Mayo Clinic’s overall waste stream is currently recycled. Mayo Clinic has operated its own recycling facility at its largest campus in Rochester, Minn., for 25 years.
PBS NewsHour’s piece also points to the work of Health Care Without Harm’s global team to implement sustainable medical waste disposal worldwide, the particular challenges faced by hospitals and health clinics in developing countries, and the importance of adopting sustainable practices before a disaster strikes.
The article ends by pointing to the urgent work now before us. While hospitals have made major progress reducing pollution from medical waste, the carbon footprint of health care remains significant. As Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth founder and president Gary Cohen emphasizes in the article, the lessons we have learned from reducing waste can be applied more broadly to build a health sector: “It’s no longer sufficient to just be concerned with individual healing,” he said. “I think health care needs to see its mission in a broader way.”