Healthcare is the second most wasteful industry behind fast-food. Managing waste in a healthcare environment poses unique challenges due to infection prevention precautions and contamination. Low-grade recyclables such as gloves, masks, and tubing can easily end up in our recycling streams if we’re not diligent and certain medical products are not accepted by Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs).
UCLA Health has a goal to divert 50% of our materials from landfill, with a stretch goal to become a zero-waste (90% diversion or higher) healthcare system. Our landfill diversion rate currently hovers around 30%, which is about the national healthcare average. We are working to standardize our waste and recycling practices across the health system, and educate all of our staff on the latest changes in recycling. Current initiatives within our health system include:
UCLA Health uses 7.1 million pounds of linen per year. Processing that much linen uses over 8.1 million gallons of water and more than 300,000 kWh of electricity - that’s enough to fill 12 Olympic-sized pools and power 33 homes for one year.
To minimize the environmental impact of our linen, we change it only when needed or requested in patient care areas. A new bed-making policy was also implemented to further reduce our utilization of linen. This new process will help conserve water, decrease the use of chemicals when linen is laundered, reduce energy consumption and cost.
At the end of 2015, our materials management team fully implemented our reusable isolation gowns program at our Santa Monica and Ronald Reagan campuses. This program is the result of successful collaboration between sustainability, infection prevention, nursing, materials management, environmental services, and our vendor partners. Our team designed a custom gown that is 99% polyester and 1% carbon fiber to reduce static electricity. Our gowns have custom sleeves with shorter cuffs that ensure proper glove protection, are reversible to minimize labor time at our laundering facilities, and snaps rather than ties that are easier to use for our staff.
Every time a gown is washed and reused, it keeps a disposable gown out of the landfill. Life-cycle assessment studies show that when reusable gowns are compared to their disposable counterparts, they create a 28% reduction in natural resource energy used, a 30% reduction in global warming potential, a 41% reduction in water consumption, and a 93-99% reduction in solid waste. Since the inception of our program, we have issued more than 10 million washable isolation gowns, and with each disposable gown weighing about half a pound, we have diverted over 2,500 tons of material from the landfill and saved $3.5 million over the life of the program.
For more information, read the case study Practice Greenhealth completed on the program, or the study Frontiers in Public Health conducted: COVID-19 Solutions Are Climate Solutions: Lessons From Reusable Gowns.
Americans consume 100 billion cups of coffee yearly and over 16 billion of those coffees are bought in disposable paper cups. This adds a tremendous amount of waste to landfills. By switching to reusable coffee mugs, you can reduce the environmental impact of your daily cup of coffee. We give reusable mugs to all of our new hires and they are available for purchase in all of our dining commons. Additionally, our coffee vendor uses compostable cups that are able to be collected in our composting program.
Most of the UCLA Health System’s product deliveries are packaged in reusable plastic totes. Our distribution partner and materials management team remove products from cardboard boxes and place them in the totes which are delivered to our hospitals on a just-in-time system. The totes are then returned to the distributor to repeat the process. This allows the cardboard to be recycled by the distributor rather than flow through the UCLA medical center waste system. The cardboard that does enter our system is baled at our distribution center or recycled on-site at our loading docks.
UCLA Health offers a program to reuse sharps containers (medical waste disposal containers for things like needles). While the hazardous waste is sterilized and incinerated, the container goes through a process of sterilization and reassembly and is then returned to the health system for reuse. The process of reusing biohazard containers eliminates ~40 tons of waste from ending up in landfills annually.
UCLA Health offers collection receptacles for recycling and composting inside and outside of our dining facilities. Our cutlery, bowls, plates, napkins, cups, lids, and straws are all compostable. .It is important for all of our staff and visitors to follow the guidance provided on our signage to ensure minimal contamination in both of these streams that are sorted by our waste hauler.
In 2020, we expanded our composting program to include paper towels in our public-facing restrooms. We generate a significant amount of paper towel waste daily, and ensuring it does not end up in a landfill is important to achieving our waste diversion goals. The next phase of the program is to capture the paper towel waste from our patient floors and food waste from our staff break rooms and conference rooms.
UCLA will be a plastic-free campus by 2023, and in 2021 began the first phase of the UC single-use plastics policy. UCLA Health is committed to transitioning away from single use plastic including bags, foodservice items, and beverage bottles in all retail and dining locations. The policy also applies to all of our catered events. Additionally, we are evaluating our other clinical departments to see where we can eliminate plastic waste. There are a significant amount of plastics used during the care of patients, so we’re interested in partnering with manufacturers to change their packaging to reduce the waste generated from our operations.
Medical waste within our health system is categorized according to the hazard such that it can be appropriately treated after it leaves the hospital. It is important that all of our staff understand how to segregate medical waste to minimize contamination risk through proper disposal. These waste streams are also our most expensive and all end up in the landfill, so we conduct annual education of all staff to ensure only the appropriate items are being disposed of in the various types of bins.
For more information view our Employee Health & Safety team’s guidance.
We implemented our “A Sustainable U” campaign to standardize our signage across the health system. We regularly conduct unit rounds and in-service education with staff to keep them updated on the latest changes in our sustainability program. If you would like to schedule one for your unit during your regular huddles, please contact [email protected].
Think you’re a recycling expert? Take our recycling quiz and test your knowledge.