MGH Ragon Building
MGH's Phillip and Susan Ragon Building will have outdoor spaces to reduce the urban heat island effect.

“While Earth Day is recognized as April 22 across the globe - every day is Earth Day at MGH as our attention never wanes,” says Jonathan Slutzman, MD, director of the MGH Center for the Environment and Health. “We are always working to take steps big and small across the institution to improve sustainability and our overall carbon footprint, to create healthier environments for our patients, employees and communities.”

The Ragon Building

The MGH’s state-of-the-art Phillip and Susan Ragon Building, currently under construction on Cambridge Street adjacent to MGH’s main campus, was designed to be a sustainable structure with multiple innovations aimed at reducing its greenhouse gas intensity.

Once completed, the new building will have solar panels on the roof and outdoor spaces to reduce the urban heat island effect—a phenomenon where built-up areas are hotter than less built areas surrounding them. The building will have highly insulated walls and windows, and LED lights. The kitchen will feature electric appliances including induction cooktops. The building will be powered almost entirely using renewable electricity with 85% of the building’s energy coming from non-fossil fuel sources, and heat recovery pumps will be used to heat incoming fresh air and reduce energy demand.

“The Ragon Building will be the most environmentally sustainable building ever constructed within Mass General Brigham,” Slutzman says.

MGH Waltham's solar panel system
MGH Waltham's solar panel system.

MGH Waltham Solar Panel System

At MGH Waltham, a Photovoltaic (PV) solar panel system will start operations in April to help offset that building’s environmental footprint. The system will produce 22% of the outpatient building's electricity consumption. This solar array consists of 1,200 480-watt solar panels to help save the hospital approximately $75,000 in electricity costs annually. The garage canopy PV system is expected to generate 597,838 kilowatt-hours in its first year of production. The electricity produced will reduce the pollution equivalent to taking 105 gasoline cars permanently off the road and will produce enough electricity to power 60 average US households per year.

This PV system is the latest of five onsite installations at MGB facilities. MGH Waltham joins the MGB headquarters in Somerville, Mass General Hospital in Charlestown, Spaulding Cape Cod, and Newton Wellesley Hospital. The next installation will be for the new inpatient tower and garage at Faulkner Hospital.

A person working in the MGH operating room
Blue wrap in an MGH Operating Room.

Operating Room Efforts

Currently three major sustainability efforts are underway in MGH Operating Rooms (OR), which are the single biggest draw of Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) on campus because of the necessary standards for keeping materials sterile. Specific levels of humidity, temperature and air flow must be maintained.

“We can save a lot of energy by setting back the HVAC dials in the middle of the night when we know specific ORs will not be in use,” Slutzman says. “Then, we work with Infection Control and Facilities Engineering to make sure the ORs are at optimal settings and ready for use before patients come in the next day.”

In addition, surgical blue wrap – a sterile material that covers surgical instruments – currently generates nearly 7% of all hospital waste. MGH Environmental Services staff tackled this problem by introducing a recycling program for blue wrap and similar materials that are not biodegradable.

“We are one of the only hospitals in Boston recycling blue wrap,” Slutzman says. “We’ve recycled ten tons to date. We work with a vendor who creates patient belonging bags or isolation gowns out of the materials.”

Slutzman says the OR teams also have worked to curb the use of anesthetic gases, which represent about 10% of MGH’s direct carbon emissions. When released into the atmosphere, these act as greenhouse gases, contributing to global warming; the environmental impact is similar to burning fossil fuels.

“In the past few years, MGH has reduced its anesthesia-related carbon footprint by 75% in part by educating anesthesia staff about climate change impacts and by building a computerized alert reminding them to safely reduce the fresh gas flow,” Slutzman says. “The next step is to look at the overall system of anesthesia delivery and study whether nitrous oxide cylinders are more efficient than using the central nitrous system, without compromising the quality of patient care.”

Nutrition and Food Services

Over the past several years, MGH Department of Nutrition and Food Services has made great strides in creating a healthier, more sustainable environment, including an innovative program that takes composting a step further: MGH takes food waste and sends it for anaerobic digestion, which turns organic waste into fertilizer and fuel. Almost half of the department’s non-food items, including plates and utensils, are also compostable. Emphasis is put on offering more meatless food options with Eat Street Café’s menu at 14% plant-based; Riverside Café’s menu is 32% plant-based. Additionally, 92% of the roughly 560,000 pounds of chicken MGH purchases annually is antibiotic-free.

“What many people don’t realize is that the biggest contributor to antibiotic resistance in humans is raising meat that has been treated with antibiotics,” says Slutzman “The medicine makes its way into the human environment, into the water supply and into the soil. Often, it’s given to animals by farmers pre-emptively when there is really no need. Taking the step to purchase antibiotic-free chicken is a pricier option, but the MGH community agreed it was necessary.”

The challenge, he says, was finding a supplier who could handle the quantities MGH requires.

“MGH is the biggest commercial kitchen in the Commonwealth. We serve 30,000 meals a day,” he says.

Nutrition and Food Services also uses cage-free eggs and cage-free pork. The department is now looking into switching to antibiotic-free turkey in the near future.

“Eating plant-forward meals and having healthier food options at the ready are seemingly small things that have a huge impact on the environment,” Slutzman says. “We need a full-scale change, but we can accomplish it bit-by bit. With so many efforts happening across MGH, I am confident we will achieve our sustainability goals.”