As a student nurse, you can’t help but become acutely aware of the unnecessary environmental waste that is involved in providing hospital healthcare. In fact, it has been estimated that the Victorian public health services will be generating as much as 52,000 tonnes of solid waste per year by 2022 which will cost over $17 million1.
Every day as part of patient care there is of course much energy, water and wastage involved. At the same time this means there is a great opportunity for nurses to be part of a movement towards more environmentally sustainable hospitals and to help combat waste and climate change.
Around the world, health care organisations are increasingly paying attention to environmental sustainability, and in fact the Global Green and Healthy Hospitals Network2 is connecting and supporting healthcare services globally to become more environmentally conscious. For example, they recommend 10 key areas where healthcare could drastically improve its environmental footprint, including better management of waste, water, transportation, food, procurement of pharmaceuticals, and more sustainably designed hospital buildings.
In Australia, many healthcare organisations have also joined the Climate and Health Alliance,3 which has been a strong advocate for greenhouse gas emission reductions from healthcare. It is notable that the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation has an ambitious climate change policy that recognises the importance of combating climate change and addressing the implications on human health (for example, the impact of rising atmospheric temperatures and the effect on vulnerable populations such as the elderly and the sick). Indeed, The Lancet medical journal has identified climate change as the greatest threat to global health and also the greatest opportunity for change in the 21st century.4
But what does this mean for day-to-day nursing in hospitals and what are some practical things that can be done immediately to instigate change on a local scale without compromising patient safety and quality of care?
- Maximise recycling in the hospital setting
For example, set up easily accessible paper recycling and soft plastic recycling on wards.
- Reduce wastage, including of medications and food
For instance, undertake regular medication reviews to ensure patients are prescribed only the necessary medications for their needs and allowing patients to choose their own meals will help reduce food wastage.
- Consider transport of staff and patients
Encourage hospitals to provide facilities to make active transport like walking and bike riding easier, (e.g. showers and bike storage) and encourage the use of public transport.
- Encourage reflective practice
Help staff to reflect on when and how much medical supplies are really needed for specific procedures. For example, take a moment to reflect on whether single use plastic equipment is necessary to minimise infection depending on the particular clinical context (obviously avoiding clinical infection is still the first priority).
- Get involved in your hospital green committee
Contribute to the big decisions in your hospital such as advocating for sustainable building design and procurement (keeping in mind that hospital procurement is one of the greatest contributors to hospitals' environmental footprint).
Health practitioners have been leading the way on educating the community about environmental sustainability, and in fact the long-term health of populations is dependent on clean air, water and food supply. Therefore the nursing profession has an important responsibility to mitigate climate change as much as possible and engage in global efforts for a more sustainable future.
Ayelet Dahan is a final year nursing student at the Australian Catholic University.
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