While one may not understand, at first glance, the difference between a nitrile glove and a PVC glove, through working with group purchasing organizations, purchasing departments, and experts from industry, environmentally preferable practices and protocol can be put into place, including a chemical policy to avoid priority chemicals. (See Health Care without Harm’s Chemical Policy page.)
The Green Guide’s Environmentally Preferable Purchasing credits provide the goals, the health implications, and the tools to shift markets away from excessive packaging, poisonous plastics, inefficient equipment, and short-sighted solutions. Recognizing the purchasing department’s role as the gatekeeper of the institution helps visualize the critical importance of adding environmental sustainability protocol to existing supply chain and product evaluation committees. Of course we can’t address all products at one time, but just like any other greening activity, environmental criteria can be assessed a step at a time. The best place to start is by addressing whatever contract is being worked on right now.
Assessing responsible material purchasing requires fact-finding, research, and partnerships to identify less-toxic processes, waste prevention opportunities, energy and water efficiency, planet- and people-friendly possibilities, recycling and donation opportunities, and innovation. While a facility may be tempted to have a separate committee look at opportunities for greening through purchasing in order to eventually make environmentally preferable purchasing a regular course of business, the activities can be integrated directly into existing purchasing and supplychain–committee structures.
The Green Guide’s Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Section helps identify some focus areas, including energy, water, toxins, general waste, office products, and more. Many of the problems we end up having to address in the healthcare environment only come to the forefront of our minds when they become a problem. So whether it’s an exorbitant waste removal fee; a chemical spill; an air quality test; or other safety, cost, or regulatory issue, by taking a close look at the toxic baggage of this product, we realize the value of discussing these “back door issues” at the front door—in the supply chain committee—and preferably before the material has entered the facility itself. This way we can take steps to prevent the surprises, the associated costs or other burdens that we experienced the last time around. A few examples:
- A decision was made to go with a thinner waste bag to reduce costs. But when the product usage was tracked, it increased because the bag was too weak and the environmental services staffers had to double bag.
- A waterless hand soap that came in an aerosol can was purchased. If the can was not emptied 100%, it was considered hazardous material and had to be removed by a licensed hazardous waste hauler at a much higher cost.
- A mercury-containing device appeared less costly at the point of purchase, but when tracked through the facility, the true cost of the mercury-containing device was identified by adding on the “toxic baggage” including spill kit supply cost, employee response training, chemical respirator fit testing, air quality testing after a spill, and removal of the spill material as a hazardous material. One or two spills would make it pretty clear that a nonmercury device was the way to go.
A lot of these details would go unnoticed at the front door, and this is why the individual with the “back-door” knowledge should participate in the supplychain–committee meetings. (The Practice Greenhealth Web site’s Environmentally Purchasing section provides sample specification language and more information on greening purchasing practices.)