Published on : August 19, 2010

Greening the Lab

Greening the Lab

Healthcare as an industry has a significant environmental footprint. In the United States, healthcare accounts for roughly 18 percent of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and hospitals spend $6.5B a year on energy while generating 6600 tons of solid waste a day. A large hospital can use 30,000 gallons of water a day. Hospital labs contribute to both the economic and ecological impact.

With an ecological footprint as significant as this, greening the lab is an excellent way to make a positive environmental stewardship impact and also save organization significant money. Labs can accomplish this by targeting key areas such as chemicals usage, reducing their energy and water consumption and managing their waste.

Chemicals

Although many hospitals have made great strides on removing hazardous chemicals from the workplace, there are still many opportunities for facilities to focus on including mercury and solvents.

Mercury can be readily eliminated in the lab. An initial step should involve an audit of the entire lab. This can also be expanded outside of the lab to other areas of the hospital as a way to becoming a mercury-free facility. Removing mercury has many benefits, not the least of which is to avoid having the expense and training of mercury spill response plan. Mercury spills can become very expensive if not done properly. A complete listing of lab mercury uses can be found at the Sustainable Hospitals web site  http://www.sustainablehospitals.org/HTMLSrc/IP_Merc_Tools_List.html

Mercury thermometers are the most common item found in labs and can be replaced easily and without much expense. Thermometers, using alternative materials such as alcohol, are readily available and have achieved accuracy results comparable to mercury.

Another source of mercury in the lab is stains. Two common are B5 and Zenkers, both of which are histology fixatives. Alternatives for these stains are also readily available.

Mercury can also be reduced or eliminated in conjunction with the facilities staff and purchasing by looking at the type of lighting used and batteries purchased as well as looking at gauges on air handling and refrigeration units. Fluorescent light tubes contain mercury and need to be managed carefully. Some states may allow bulb crushers but many discourage it and sending bulbs off for recycling at a vendor is quite easy. You can also purchase low-mercury fluorescent tubes which minimizes the amount in the workplace. Batteries are another  product containing mercury although many alkaline batteries available now are mercury-free and there are a number of vendors available to help you recycle batteries as well.
Many labs use solvents such as Xylene and Alcohol, especially in histology and pathology areas. By being efficient, you can reduce the amount used and that which you use can be recycled with the proper equipment saving substantial money on disposal and purchase as well as reducing your hazardous waste.
Formalin, a derivative of formaldehyde is a necessary component of fixing tissues so lab tests can be performed. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and the widespread use of formalin (a somewhat safer version) poses significant health risk to staff and patients. Many changes have occurred over the years to lessen the risk, such as using pre-filled containers instead of bulk jugs, reducing the amount of formaldehyde both by changing procedures and by switching to formalin which is a diluted form of formaldehyde.

Two other ways to minimize risk and ensure compliance is to maintain a current chemical inventory and dispose of materials when it is no longer needed. Purchasing only the amount needed is a cost effective model when considering disposal costs in the economic analysis.

Energy

With an energy consumption cost of $6.5 billion in the United States alone, it makes sense for healthcare to focus on energy efficiency. As labs can consume up to 25 percent of the energy use in a hospital, it should be a significant area of focus for hospital facility management to investigate.

Mechanical changes such as converting constant volume fume hoods to variable air volume hoods can be an effective way to reduce energy consumption in the lab.  Another option is to set back building temperatures and ventilation rates slightly at night.

Lighting retrofits are a common and effective means to reducing energy consumption without sacrificing quality. Simple changes such as converting from standard fluorescent to T-8 fluorescent lighting and changing to group re-lamping instead of spot re-lamping can save substantial amounts of energy and labor. Changing emergency lighting to LED technology is also an effective means to save energy.

Putting occupancy sensors on lights is also an effective change, especially in locations where need for access is limited. Organizations with labs might want to consider investigating alternative power sources such as solar power generation on rooftops and other means to reduce energy consumption such as installing a green roof which reduces heating and cooling demand thus reducing energy consumption.

Water

Water is a commodity often overlooked in healthcare until an issue such as incoming quality or access to sufficient volumes occurs.  With a typical large hospital using 30,000 gallons a day, both incoming water and outgoing wastewater needs to be carefully monitored.

One of the ways labs can reduce water consumption is by ensuring all new equipment is water efficient. Identifying ways water cooling can be closed loop is another way to reduce water consumption. Another way to reduce water use is to regularly review processes to ensure water is not being used needlessly.  An example would be installing a water/energy efficient dishwasher to replace washing by hand or using an older model.

Solid Waste

Labs generate a number of different waste streams. The most expensive, being hazardous waste, which is generated from the chemical processes mentioned earlier.   In addition, labs generate different types of infectious waste and trash, universal waste and a good deal of which can be potentially be recycled. Preventing waste should always be the first goal, but when waste is generated, managing it as a commodity will help you do the right thing and save money.

  • Hazardous waste is the most expensive waste generated in a hospital. Efficient use and recycling of the solvents saves money and helps both the bottom line and may allow you to lower your regulatory burden.
  • Universal waste is a category that is relatively new and includes items like fluorescent light tubes and several types of batteries as well as in some case pharmaceutical wastes.
  • Infectious waste is often known as “red-bag waste” or “bio-waste”, also an expensive type of waste. Some of the materials collected as infectious waste are not infectious but are considered “sharps” and often those are then required to be placed in a sharps container, adding significant cost to the process. Use of plastic pipettes whenever possible can potentially reduce this type of waste. In addition, it is important to maintain regular staff education to prevent placing noninfectious trash in infectious waste containers, thus reducing the amount of material shipped off site at a higher pricing rate.

Recycling is an often overlooked means of reducing waste and it ultimately saves money. Labs create significant amounts of paper and cardboard, both of which should be easily recycled. Many reagent containers are made of high density polyethylene (HDPE #2) and are readily recyclable in many areas. In addition to recycling being good for the environment, anything diverted from the landfill saves money.

Prevention is often overlooked in the hierarchy of waste management but it should be the first step. Labs use a significant amount of personal hygiene products such as paper towels. Implementing a reusable towel system can significantly reduce waste*.  In addition, changing to 100 percent recycled content paper towels will help improve your ecological footprint.

Obsolete equipment is often overlooked as a waste stream but there are several reasons to pay attention to how it’s disposed. The initial review should start with potential resale or donation through appropriate channels. Failing that, disposal should occur with a vendor who can demonstrate both environmental stewardship but also data security in the event that the equipment had any kind of electronic memory.

Summary

Healthcare labs are an integral part of providing top quality healthcare. With a significant ecological footprint, greening the lab is an excellent way to make a positive impact on the environmental stewardship of the organization and also save an organization a significant amount of money. Labs can accomplish this by targeting key areas such as chemicals usage, reducing their energy and water consumption, and managing their waste.

About the Author

Tom Badrick is President of Badrick Consulting specializing in healthcare sustainability program design and implementation.  Tom is a thought leader and recognized speaker in the healthcare sustainability field.  Tom successfully crafted and directed the nationally recognized and award winning sustainability program for a large health system and has guided and assisted many other organizations to create or expand successful programs as well as partnering with suppliers.  Tom has a background in Environmental, Health and Safety management in biotech/chemical manufacturing and the electronics industry.  Badrick Consulting offers a wide range of services from program creation/development to partnering in management of specific components of a sustainability program ranging from waste management to climate change initiatives.  The Badrick Consulting web page is  www.badricksustainability.com and Tom can be reached via email at tbadrick@aol.com.