Environmental sustainability in health care - why do it?

By Chris Hill, Director of Environmental Sustainability, Mater Published 5 May 2014 on Sustainability At Work The priority of our team at Mater Health Services will always be the delivery of exceptional care to patients. That raises the question "Why focus on sustainability?" I for one believe the two are not mutually exclusive, and in fact often ask why you would not focus on this area, which can return financial savings that can be reinvested into patient care. These savings also translate to broader benefits “ from an environmental perspective through decreased consumption, and also the often hard-to-measure behavioural change. The journey for me at Mater has evolved significantly over the past few years as our Sustainability at Materprogram gained momentum within our group of almost 7600 staff. Our program commenced in 2008, initially driven by legislative requirements for the Clean Energy Act and associated Smart Energy Savings Program from a state-wide perspective, and the Federal National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act 2007. What was predominantly implemented to ensure adherence to these policies has grown into a key area of focus for Mater and seamlessly integrated into "normal business practice". To support the implementation of various campaigns and tactics associated with the program, a multidisciplinary committee, comprising executive directors and senior directors from across Mater, was established. This process really began from scratch, with no existing platform to refer to regarding how to successfully implement our ideas across our health care environment for the best possible outcome. Recognition of the environment in our strategic plan was crucial for the implementation of our program in the key areas of focus “ energy, water, waste, facilities design, procurement, transport and stakeholder engagement “ from which 126 initiatives were identified. The implementation of initiatives began with those that provided tangible results, so that staff could "see" the changes and therefore more easily align to the program. Examples included dual printing (with more than 6 million pages saved to date), the installation of 24 water tanks across our South Brisbane campus, increase to bike parking (90 spaces, each with a locker) and a commitment to recycling across numerous areas. A comprehensive communication and engagement plan was developed in-house with Mater Marketing to develop an easily identifiable design to be consistently used for all communication related to the program. The plan also articulates aims and objectives, key messages, stakeholders and communication tools. A behavioural study undertaken with Griffith University and The University of Queensland, supported by results from an all staff engagement survey, indicated waste was a priority of staff in terms of tangible environmental sustainability. This was translated into practice, with changes such as supporting co-mingled recycling in non-clinical office areas and changes to clinical waste disposal processes. There are now 11 recycling streams in place across areas of the campus and during the last two years, this has increased recycling by more than 115 tonnes per year and has reduced clinical waste by more than 80 tonnes. This program is planned for expansion across the entire organisation. Other programs targeting behavioural change involved direct engagement with staff. A "turn it off" campaign was delivered in conjunction with the universities to encourage staff to turn off lights and appliances when not in use. Mater-branded "keep cups" were also made available within cafes. This cost-neutral campaign has resulted in sales of almost 3000 cups since 2011. We have also linked to external campaigns, with great success. During MobileMuster in March 2013, more than 40 kilograms of mobile phones and accessories were donated by staff, supporting the positioning of permanent collection points. National Ride to Work Day also attracted more than 50 participants who were treated to a free end-of-ride breakfast. During a Friday File Fling in November 2013 to support National Recycling Week, more than five tonnes of material was collected by Mater's waste team for recycling (or shredding, for confidential material). Staff education is also now incorporated into a variety of programs coordinated by Mater Education Centre. Mater's behavioural standards handbook and new staff orientation sessions reinforce Mater's commitment to environmental sustainability by setting out expectations for responsible stewardship from the commencement of employment. While staff support of the program is essential to its success, the ability to demonstrate organisational savings “ both financial and environmental “ is not only required for the program's future, but also aids in it becoming a component of "business as usual", rather than an additional program drawing from other priorities. Energy initiatives such as installing energy efficient lighting into Mater car parks has reduced energy use by more than 30 per cent, with a less-than-two-year payback. As part of our commitment to the Smart Energy Savings Plan, a $1.9 million chiller replacement program was delivered. It has decreased energy use, and air conditioning scheduling continues to be monitored to ensure its use during core periods. The implementation of a campus-wide temperature policy to regulate summer and winter temperature levels is also expected to contribute to a reduction in energy use. Electricity contract negotiations in partnership with an external energy broker have delivered substantial financial savings for the 2013-14 financial year and current renegotiation to a "flexible" wholesale price is expected to deliver further savings from January 2015. We are also investigating the appointment of an external contractor to develop an energy management plan for Mater that will recommend and cost payback periods for a number of initiatives, to allow for inclusion in our capital budget process. Mater has delivered many other initiatives which have contributed to Sustainability at Mater. These include fleet and fuel reduction, reduction in the use of plastic water bottles for patients, miscellaneous lighting upgrades, carbon footprint measurement, volatile organic compound-free paint and green waste shredding. All initiatives, big or small, support Mater's goals within the area of environmental sustainability. To summarise, in my opinion, the success for environmental sustainability across an organisation must include the following components:
  • You must have top management support for this to be successful.
  • Multiple contributions from all areas do make a difference.
  • Embed these changes into "business as usual" and there are more dollars available for patient care.
  • Environmental sustainability integration is transferrable across all industries.
Chris Hill is Mater's director of environmental sustainability. He can be contacted via chris.hill@mater.org.au. This was first published in Catholic Health Australia's Autumn 2014 issue of Health Matters.