December 2, 2023
Dr. Ali Abbass holds a bag of collected used biomedical devices ready to be sent for reprocessing.

A national coalition of health care leaders has recognized Unity Health Toronto for excellence in sustainability, from diverting thousands of single-use sharps containers from landfill to reprocessing biomedical devices in operating rooms.

The Energy and Environmental Stewardship Award, presented each year by the Canadian College of Health Leaders, recognizes a progressive health care organization that has implemented organizational-wide initiatives demonstrating environmental responsibility through the reduction of energy use, preservation of natural resources and effective waste diversion solutions.

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“This award celebrates the many individuals, both seen and unseen, who work to advance sustainability across the organization,” said Katelyn Poyntz, Director of Project Engineering and Energy at Unity Health. “We’re not just building a culture of sustainability, we’re building a passionate community of people who integrate change into their daily practices because they care. They want to make sure that Unity Health can continue to provide for our patients, residents and communities well into the future.”

Unity Health has taken major steps to improve environmentalism across the organization, as part of its commitment to sustainability. Read below to learn more about the programs that are making a big difference.

Reducing surgical waste at St. Joseph’s and St. Michael’s

Operating rooms (ORs) generate over 30 per cent of a hospital’s total waste. Three initiatives at St. Joseph’s Health Centre and St. Michael’s Hospital are reducing this number.

Made possible by a partnership with Stryker Sustainability Solutions, the first initiative enables the collection and reprocessing of single-use biomedical devices from Unity Health operating rooms. These devices include expensive specialized surgical instruments and other devices that were previously discarded as general waste, such as compression devices and oxygen probes.

As part of this partnership, Unity Health can also repurchase the reprocessed devices as a lower cost, saving the organization thousands of dollars annually.

The PVC 123 Recycling Program enables the recycling of medical devices made of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) – a plastic that isn’t accepted in traditional plastics recycling programs. Working with Norwich Plastics, Unity Health collects several PVC-made devices, including intravenous therapy (IV) bags, oxygen masks and tubing, which the company reprocesses and recycles.

In 2021 and 2022, St. Joseph’s diverted over 96,000 kg of single-use medical device waste from landfill and saved thousands of dollars in waste and purchasing costs.

“Being able to see the impact of this work is key,” said Laurie Thomas, Senior Director of Surgery, Ambulatory Care Clinics, Orthopedic/Mobility programs and the Bariatric Centre of Excellence at Unity Health. Thomas is also the co-Chair of the OR Green Team at St. Joseph’s and the OR Sustainability Committee at St. Michael’s. “Sometimes the changes feel insignificant but when we look at the metrics, we can see that they’re working. It generates more interest, excitement and buy in from staff.”

In 2022, St. Joseph’s also introduced a Bring your own Bag (BYOB) program, which encourages surgical patients to bring a reusable bag to store their clothes and other belongings during surgery. Historically, patients were given a plastic bag to store their items, which would end up in the garbage. Patients who don’t bring their own reusable bag are provided with one courtesy of the St. Joseph’s Health Centre Foundation. The program will roll out at St. Michael’s later this year.

“We’re trying to leave things better than we found them,” said Thomas. “If we can change the culture of sustainability within the surgical environment, whether that’s eliminating waste or making better and more informed choices, it drastically improves the patient and provider experience.”

Improving waste management in the research facility at St. Michael’s

The sustainability committee at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute (LKSKI) is revamping waste distribution processes across the facility. Earlier this year, the team introduced compost bins in the washrooms and recycling bins in laboratory spaces.

“We’re trying to identify easy changes that will actually make a difference,” said Emma O’Neil, Research Facilities Project Administrator and member of the LKSKI Sustainability Committee. “Most bathroom waste is paper towel, which is compostable, and in the labs, there’s so much paper, plastic and cardboard. The work for us is really just getting people to make the right choices.”

After introducing these initiatives in January 2023, the composting and recycling waste diversion rate was 87 per cent, up from 81 per cent in January 2022.

“I check the recycling bins every day and there’s hardly any contamination,” said O’Neil. “When we took away the bins briefly to adjust our program, people demanded them back. The support has been really great.”

The Research Facilities team also runs a campaign each fall and spring called “Kill the lights, save the birds,” which encourages staff to turn off their lights at the end of the day to save energy and protect birds during their migratory seasons. To save additional energy, the team is purchasing more efficient equipment and exploring whether they can introduce an automated lighting system in the Li Ka Shing building.

Diverting single-use plastics at Providence

Disposable plastic sharps containers contribute a huge amount of total sharps waste. To address this, Providence installed more than 150 reusable containers, estimated to divert appropriately 1,600 single-use plastic containers from landfill every year.

With a life span of 500 uses, reusable containers will divert nearly 80,000 single-use plastic sharps containers from Providence during their lifetime. They’ll also reduce the number of containers required for production and autoclaving – a process by which disposable containers are sterilized.

With staff wellbeing top of mind, the reusable containers have several safety benefits, including reduced risk of injury caused by needles and better prevention of unauthorized access.

“Change doesn’t need to be gigantic to have a big impact,” said Thomas. “It’s about making small, conscious choices. Even when progress is slow, that doesn’t mean we stop. Sometimes things take a long time to embed and I think that’s true of sustainability. We’ll see change in the years to come.”

By: Anna Wasserman


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