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Trash Talk: Kaiser Permanente Sets Ambitious Target to Reduce Waste

August 17, 2011

Committed to reducing its impact on the environment, Kaiser Permanente has set an ambitious target for reducing the waste it produces. By 2015, Kaiser Permanente aims to reuse, recycle, or compost at least 40 percent of its waste system-wide, diverting all of this material from landfills.

Kaiser Permanente is currently reusing, recycling, or composting about 31 percent of its waste, which includes everything from paper towels to medical supplies. Waste reduction is an important goal for health care, which is faced with a wide variety of waste materials. Hospitals in the U.S. produce more than 5.9 million tons of waste annually, according to Practice Greenhealth, a nonprofit membership organization focused on environmental stewardship in health care.

“Waste reduction creates healthier communities by preserving natural resources and reducing greenhouse gas emissions throughout the lifecycles of the products we use,” says Joe Bialowitz, senior environmental stewardship consultant for Kaiser Permanente. Bialowitz also noted that cutting waste can help trim costs, while creating jobs for people in the recycling industry and within the organization’s own health system.

Bialowitz cited several best practices that are taking place throughout the organization: At Kaiser Permanente’s Los Angeles and Riverside medical centers, hundreds of housekeeping and janitorial workers have been trained to do their jobs in more environmentally responsible ways. He also pointed to the safe reprocessing of medical devices such as compression sleeves and ultrasonic scalpels at Kaiser Permanente hospitals, which saved over $8 million in 2010 by reducing spending on both waste disposal and device purchasing.

In addition, many Kaiser Permanente hospitals throughout California have developed innovative programs to recycle or reuse blue wrap, the material used to preserve the sterility of medical instruments.

Kaiser Permanente’s partners are also helping to cut waste. MedShare, a key partner in medical supply recycling, was awarded the 2011 California Reuse Award for its work in providing recycled medical supplies and equipment to safety-net clinics throughout California. Kaiser Permanente donated over 63,000 pounds of medical supplies and equipment to MedShare in 2010.

Waste reduction goes far beyond recycling, Bialowitz says. The organization’s electronic health record, Kaiser Permanente HealthConnect®, also helps preserve resources and trim waste. By replacing paper medical charts and digitizing x-ray images through this system, the organization has been able to save over 1,000 tons of paper waste and avoid over 200,000 pounds of x-ray film per year.