Reaffirming Our Commitment to Going Green

Every April 22 for the past 49 years, the nation has celebrated Earth Day, a time of civic engagement aimed at increasing awareness of the environment and encouraging actions to preserve and protect the planet. In recent years, the mission of Earth Day has taken on a greater sense of urgency as the cumulative damage to land, sea and sky from increased industrial development has reached alarming levels. Environmental concerns like air and water pollution, pesticides and climate change have a direct impact on health. As a major Boston academic medical center, a purchaser of supplies and materials, a consumer of significant energy and a generator of waste, Massachusetts General hospital has a responsibility to its patients and staff and to its local and global communities to be as environmentally friendly as possible. In the spirit of Earth Day, we celebrate the work being done at Mass General in the area of sustainability as well as look for opportunities to become an even greener organization.
When it comes to sustainability, the health care industry faces particular challenges. Unlike most businesses, hospitals are open and operating 24/7, with significant power required to run medical equipment, air handling systems, sterilization processing units, refrigeration facilities, laboratories and complex technology round-the-clock. Health care also generates a range of waste products, including medical wastes—hazardous, toxic, infectious, radioactive materials and sharps—that require special types of treatment and disposal methods. Identifying and implementing ways to reduce a hospital’s carbon footprint, decrease the amount of waste sent to landfills and adopt environmentally responsible practices demands a collective and coordinated hospitalwide effort.

The Mass General Sustainability Committee

To oversee and advance the hospital’s sustainability efforts, the newly-formed Mass General Sustainability Committee, chaired by Sally Mason Boemer, senior vice president of Administration and Finance, will comprise of representatives from throughout the institution involved in environmental efforts. In collaboration with Partners, this new committee will better coordinate the breadth of sustainability programs—large and small—ongoing at the hospital, expand those that are most effective, and propose and consider bold new initiatives. One focus will involve integrating the perspectives of caregivers and reviewing the environmental impact of various treatment options to find ways to align the hospital's quality and safety goals with its sustainability goals.

Mass General, through Partners, is a founding member of the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, launched in 2010 to provide guidance to and encourage health care organizations to move toward sustainability by choosing meaningful goals, adopting best practices and measuring progress. At Mass General, there are focused efforts in four major areas:

  • Reducing the carbon footprint. In 2008, Mass General set a goal of reducing energy consumption 25% by 2020—an ambitious undertaking. Mass General reached that goal in just five years and has now achieved a 36% reduction. The bar has been raised even further, with a target of 40% by the end of 2019. Efforts have ranged from major investments in cogeneration, installation of a 40-kilowatt solar array on the roof of the Charlestown Navy Yard parking garage and purchasing significant energy produced by a wind farm in New Hampshire.
  • Reducing waste. Mass General started the REAL (Raising Environmental Awareness League) in 2010 to focus on sustainability efforts across the hospital. Many of these initiatives have been employee-generated ideas and employee-driven efforts to reduce total waste tonnage, increase recycling and reduce medical waste. Last year, under the leadership of Bill Banchiere, director of Mass General Environmental Services, the hospital recycled 581 tons of cardboard, 612 tons of paper, 380 tons of food, 1,147 tons of construction waste and 849 tons of medical waste. In addition, the hospital is committed to buying products that can be recycled, and it works with vendors to set up programs in which companies take back used products and reduce packaging materials.
  • Purchasing environmentally preferable products. Through a Partners-led program, Mass General has been encouraging purchase of preferred products, including reusable items and reprocessed single-use devices. For example, the Mass General generated substantial waste by discarding pulse oximetry probes, small clips that are placed on patients’ fingers to measure oxygen levels in the blood. By switching to reprocessed and refurbished probes, Mass General has saved significant costs while reducing waste—and staff have reported that the reprocessed probes have a similar or even lower failure rate than new probes.
  • Decreasing the use of chemicals. Frequent exposure to cleaning products in the workplace has been shown to be a significant cause of work-related asthma, with the highest incidence seen among health care workers, particularly nurses and cleaning staff. To address this concern at Mass General, Environmental Services staff members researched products and determined which certified green products would be most effective for various kinds of cleaning needs and safer for staff, and they switched to these products where possible. Also, certain high-level disinfectants used in laboratories have been replaced with safer alternatives such as steam and automatic washers/disinfectors. In addition, by identifying alternative reagents for mercury in the laboratory, this toxic metal has been eliminated from Mass General.

Additional Efforts

Beyond these measures, nearly 80% of employees who work at the main Mass General campus take public transportation, walk or bike to the hospital. This percentage, which is dramatically higher than that of other large employers in the city, reflects an understanding by our workforce that parking is in short supply in this urban environment and that the limited on- and near-campus parking is best saved for patients and families.

These ongoing efforts in sustainability, coupled with the experience gained in the journey to become greener and more environmentally friendly, are informing the plans and designs for the hospital facility that will be built along Cambridge Street in the coming years. The new 12-story clinical building will provide the hospital with the space needed to care for its patients and enable it to accommodate future growth. It will also provide patients and families with a more comfortable, private and positive environment in which to receive exceptional care. With this building, Mass General has an opportunity to get it right, to create a structure that is sustainable and energy efficient—one with verdant rooftop gardens, healing green space and a secure bike storage area. It also has an opportunity to build a facility that is resilient, able to function in the midst of disaster—natural or man-made—and withstand hurricane-force winds, flooding and other threats. The new facility will embody the obligation Mass General has to protect the planet and repair the damage that has been inflicted on its sensitive environment. At the same time, this building will stand steadfast and strong—sheltering patients, families, staff and the community should nature decide to strike back.

A sustainability site on the Apollo intranet will soon be available where staff can submit their ideas about ways Mass General can become greener and more environmentally responsible.