The healthcare industry — and I am including long-term care and senior living facilities in that definition — has been a bit slow to adopt sustainability initiatives. Its focus, of course, always is on resident and patient care, not necessarily on turning off the lights or looking for ways to limit paper use. But slowly, healthcare facilities have been coming around, and one of the main reasons for this is cost savings.

According to a 2014 report from the American Hospital Association and the Health Research and Educational Trust, “environmental sustainability is good business, as it helps lower operational costs and allows hospitals to direct more resources to patient care.”

The study authors provided the following examples to justify their conclusion:

  • Memorial Hermann Health System in southeast Texas saved $47 million through energy improvements over five years.
  • Kaiser Permanente has been able to save $4 million annually in its locations by just buying energy-efficient computers.
  • The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock has saved enough money from its sustainability initiatives that it was able to “create 60 new beds, remodel five operating suites, build out a floor of a cancer institute and buy seven acres of land.”

Long-term care and senior living could experience similar savings. I hope this information is enough for administrators of long-term care facilities and executive directors of senior living communities to start thinking a bit more about embracing sustainability initiatives, especially if they have taken few if any steps so far.

Although the study talked in generalities as to how these facilities accomplished these sustainability benefits, administrators need to know more precisely what steps they can take now and in the future. For that, we need three buckets.

The bucket approach

Years ago when I was helping the professional cleaning industry and building managers around the country transfer to a “green” cleaning program, we found that the easiest way to accomplish our goals was to take it a step at a time. We did this by creating three imaginary buckets:

  1. We placed all the items in this bucket that could be handled now at little or no cost. 
  2. This bucket contained items that take a little time — up to six months — to accomplish and would cost a moderate amount of money
  3. These were long-term initiatives that would be costly. They typically involve actions such as replacing HVAC units, which eventually would need to be attended to anyway.

Now that we have our imaginary buckets in place, let’s start filling them up. Although we cannot cover everything here, we’ll touch on some key items that should at least get the sustainability juices flowing.

For instance:

In Bucket #1

Install aerators on all faucets and shower heads. This is a very inexpensive project that not only reduces water consumption but also saves energy. The less hot water is used for showering, for instance, the less water heaters must heat water, resulting in savings in the bank.

Switch to green cleaning products. Green-certified products are made with renewable resources and often are shipped in five-gallon quantiles, reducing packaging, fuel and transport costs. Plus, they typically are sold at discounted prices.

Maximize recycling. Although this does apply to all healthcare facilities and not long-term/senior care locations specifically, it is estimated that healthcare facilities generate 25 pounds of waste per day per patient. For a facility with 200 people, that’s a staggering 150,000 pounds of waste every month sent to landfills, nearly 2 million pounds annually.

In Bucket #2

Transfer to low energy lighting. In the U.S., it is estimated that large medical facilities account for approximately 1% of all commercial buildings and 2% of all commercial space but consume about 6% of all the energy delivered in the commercial sector. Transferring to low energy lighting is a first step in reducing this energy use.

Turn to local food suppliers. This may or may not be cost neutral, but by contracting with local food suppliers for fresh food, long-term/senior care administrators can help reduce energy consumption to deliver food as well as reduce greenhouse gasses. Along these lines, and to help reduce waste, these facilities can work with local composting companies to haul away food waste for use as fertilizer.

Monitoring the thermostat. A large medical facility in Connecticut was able to save more than $300,000 annually in energy costs by investing in monitoring systems that, among other things, regulated air handling so that cooling and heating were delivered only when needed and where needed.

In Bucket #3

These are the big-ticket items, but even though they are costly, as mentioned, invariably they must be attended to.  So the goal here is just to make sure that when equipment such as HVAC systems, kitchen equipment, hot water systems, restroom fixtures and similar items are selected, sustainability and efficiency are key considerations.  Many times, an energy efficient system will cost more to select but will more than pay for itself in time. For instance, the return on the investment for the monitoring system in the Connecticut hospital just mentioned was only six months.

Check your progress

Great. Your facility now is taking steps to become more sustainable, but how do you know whether it is paying off?  Before we even begin our journey into sustainability, it is wise for administrators to invest in what are referred to as “dashboard systems.” Typically, these are online programs that can be used on any computer device. 

Data is imputed into the system – for instance, how much water and energy is currently being consumed along with its costs – and then re-evaluated every quarter.   As the savings are realized, it will encourage administrators to look further, and find even more ways to reduce consumption and cut operating costs.

Stephen P. Ashkin is founder of the Green Cleaning Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to educating building owners and suppliers about green cleaning. He also is president of Sustainability Dashboard Tools and president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in greening the cleaning industry. He is on the board of the Green Sports Alliance and has been inducted into the International Green Industry Hall of Fame.