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Hospital Works Toward 'Green' Solutions One Person at a Time
Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Wednesday, June 6, 2012
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Materials management staff pose for a photo in 2011 after binding cardboard headed for recycling.
READING, Pa. (CNS)—Climate change, water degradation and growing landfills might be global problems, but the "green team" at St. Joseph Medical Center in Reading believes they must be tackled one person at a time.

Founded by the Sisters of St. Francis in 1873 and part of the Colorado-based Catholic Health Initiatives system, St. Joseph's has its feet firmly planted in the 21st century. Its environmental efforts have won national awards and have resulted in more than 200 tons of recyclable items—from cardboard and cooking oil to batteries and yard waste—being kept out of local landfills each year.

"When we began 138 years ago we were conscientious about the environment but it wasn't until we started keeping track of what was coming in and what was coming out that we learned just how much of a carbon footprint we really had," said Joyce M. Graham, vice president for corporate responsibility and risk management at St. Joseph's.

The hospital's recycling program started in earnest in 2007 with the recycling of nearly 130 tons of cardboard, cooking oil and paper, and has grown steadily since. Added to the program in the following years were toner cartridges, light bulbs, sharp medical objects, batteries, the blue wrap used to protect sterile hospital items, yard and leaf waste and computers.

In 2010, the hospital kept more than 216 tons of the materials out of landfills —a 65 percent increase over just three years earlier.

The amount of recycled materials went down slightly to 209 tons in 2011, but the St. Joseph green team considers that a success. Less paper waste is recycled, for example, when efforts to reduce printing have been implemented.

Even the former St. Joseph's hospital building in downtown Reading has been recycled in a sense.

Its cross and stained-glass windows became part of the new hospital, which opened in 2006, and the former site is now a middle school for up to 3,000 students.

The key to the program's success lies not in sophisticated recycling equipment, but in getting each employee to buy into his or her role as a critical part of the solution.

A presentation by the green team is part of every new employee orientation, and easy-to-understand bins in the cafeteria that help diners sort waste into trash, recyclables and composting material are a daily reminder of the hospital's green commitment.

The simple step of giving every employee a reusable, thermal mug has helped the hospital use 87,338 fewer disposable cups over the past three years. Employees get an extra incentive from lower prices on coffee and some soft drinks if they use the mug.

Perry Focht, a Sodexo employee who is general manager for food and environmental services at the hospital, says the move to reusable mugs also has saved money. "So it's good financially and it's good for the environment," he said.

Hoping to improve the health of employees as well, the cafeteria at St. Joseph's has been offering healthier alternatives and using more locally grown produce and sustainable seafood. An outgrowth of the move to local vendors has been a weekly farmers' market at the hospital entrance and occasional "lunch and learn" sessions with master gardeners or herb gardeners.

The hospital even helps its employees recycle items from home: unneeded eyeglasses go to the local chapter of Lions Clubs International, used cellphones to Berks Women in Crisis to provide a lifeline for victims of domestic and sexual violence and extra coats to the Salvation Army.

Located in Pennsylvania's Amish Country, the hospital used an "otten the lights" campaign to save energy by turning off lights, computers, fax machines, printers and other equipment when not in use and by reducing unnecessary hallway lighting.

In its first six months the campaign decreased the hospital's energy usage by more than 510,000 kilowatt hours, with a cost saving of nearly $25,000. A retrofitting project for its heating and cooling systems saved the hospital another $200,000 in electricity and natural gas costs in 2011.

Catholic Health Initiatives, St. Joseph's parent organization, was one of 11 health systems joining as sponsors of the Healthier Hospitals Initiative in a national "call to action" for healthier communities.

Other participating systems included Bon Secours Health System and Dignity Health, formerly called Catholic Healthcare West.

The initiative focuses on six key areas—leadership, healthier foods, leaner energy, less waste, safer chemicals and smarter purchasing. It offers guides to help hospitals improve their practices in each area.

Colleen Scanlon, senior vice president for advocacy, said building healthier communities is a "foundational commitment" at Catholic Health Initiatives, "and environmental responsibility and stewardship are very vital dimensions of that commitment."

"We want to get even better at what we've been doing across our system, including in places like St. Joseph Medical Center in Reading, which has an ongoing commitment to environmental sustainability," she added.

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