Environmental actions to tackle climate change are rightfully gaining space in the EU and national policy agenda. We are exceeding the Earth’s capacity, reaching the limits of growth on a finite planet.
Looking at our economy, it is clear to me that healthcare is part of the problem and must become part of the solution. As the third largest employer in the world, health care has the potential to make a significant impact on European sustainability strategies, maintaining quality of care and safety as a priority.
Reducing hospital admissions and waste is not only critical for human health, but also for environmental and financial sustainability. Waste management initiatives offer great opportunities to reduce both environmental footprints and waste disposal expenses while improving the supply chain.
I believe we can achieve significant cost savings – as high as 40-70 percent of waste disposal outlays, representing €3.5-6 billion in savings for the health industry. In addition, I see a major role for health care settings in reducing environmental impact by using their resources more efficiently, designing ‘greener’ buildings, and fostering primary care.
Know your waste stream
The first step to improving a facility’s waste management is to understand its overall waste stream. Non-regulated waste, which makes up around 85% of a hospital’s total waste stream, is no different from the waste generated by a hotel, where up to 60% is either recyclable or compostable.
Regulated medical waste makes up about 5-15% while hazardous chemical waste makes up a smaller percentage (less than 5%) of a health care organization’s waste by total volume. Hence, I believe it is important to embrace a recycling culture inside hospitals and start reducing the amount of environment damaging products such as plastic. For instance, a small initiative is to replace plastic bottles with glass ones, and to offer other types of material at hospital canteens.
Cafeterias in hospitals serve hundreds of people per day, and the source of their food can have a dramatic effect on a hospital’s environmental impact. By serving locally grown fresh produce, hospitals can minimise the energy used to ship and refrigerate fruits and vegetables. Hospitals can also work with local composting companies to remove food waste that can be used as fertilizer in sustainable farming.
I know that reducing energy use is particularly tricky for hospitals, but I assure you it is not impossible. For instance, upgrading the light bulbs and replacing them with low consumption bulbs will save money and reduce the negative impact on natural resources.
Hospitals should work with vendors to ensure that the products the hospital purchases are as environmentally friendly as possible, from medical supplies to printer paper.
Making the EU a global leader in greener health
We still have a long way to go in order to achieve environmentally friendly hospital and health centres. However, good collaboration amongst EU systems and a common vision for future actions can only help.
For the EU institutions, environment and health are two important policy areas. In line with its values, the EU seeks to promote the wellbeing, security and interests of the citizens.
Since the Treaty of Amsterdam, sustainable development has been at the heart of the European project, influencing EU policies and legislation, for example, through the EU Sustainable Development Strategy and EU role in shaping to United Nation 2030 Agenda.
Sustainability shall continue to inspire the Commission’s political decision-making and guide the development of the post-EU2020 growth strategy – I am convinced health care must be part of the picture.