Greening the operating room

March 10, 2014

Lauren Dubinsky

Like other areas of health care, there is no denying that the operating room is in need of some greening. Health care facilities produce more than 6,600 tons of waste per day and nearly 5 billion pounds annually. The operating room and labor-and-delivery suites make up 70 percent of that waste. 

Over the past decade, more hospitals have been making conscious efforts to go green, with many hospitals spearheading their own initiatives to drive down medical waste and operating costs. In 2010, a nonprofit organization called Practice Greenhealth started the Greening the OR Initiative specifically to address these green issues in the operating room. 

Getting on board 

Yale-New Haven Hospital is one of the hospitals that believes in the importance of sustainability. The president pioneered the WorkSMART initiative, which is a committee that focuses on increasing cost savings, efficiency and sustainability initiatives. 

"The hospital firmly believes that sustainability is a responsibility of its entire community, including clinical and nonclinical employees," says Cristina DeVito, sustainability coordinator at the hospital. 

They began their sustainability journey by reprocessing reusable medical devices, installing LED lights and increasing their waste reduction efforts. 

Most hospitals throw a lot of waste in the regulated waste stream — even waste that isn't considered a biohazard risk — but doing so is much more costly for the hospital and it has a negative impact on human health and the environment. 

According to Practice Greenhealth's Sustainability Benchmark Report, hospitals generate over 30 pounds of waste per bed per day. Once the material is removed for donation or recycling, thousands of trucks transport it for "burn or bury". 

Half of landfill material is made up of food, paper and other compostable material. This material produces a greenhouse gas called Methane, which is 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20 year period. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identifies landfills as contributing nine percent of the U.S. carbon emissions though the development of methane. 

Yale-New Haven started putting more emphasis on making sure its waste was segregated properly, and as a result it delivered huge benefits. 

"Not only was money being saved due to proper waste segregation, but the staff was creating a healthier environment and community for our staff, patients and their families," says DeVito.