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Sustainability drive shakes up plastics' use at the Cleveland Clinic

By Doug Smock

Published: August 21st, 2012

Cleveland Clinic is making major changes in how it uses and disposes of plastics as part of a five-year-old sustainability program that has made significant gains in energy and building management.

The Ohio medical center, known globally for its cardiac and other care programs, is now officially reporting data on its compliance with ten principles in the United Nations Global Compact. One index shows that campus wide energy use dropped from more than 300 kBTU per square foot in early 2007 to less than a targeted 250 at the end of 2010. The campus, which now sprawls over a large swath of the East Side of Cleveland, covers 170 acres with 13,000,000 square feet in 50 structures. There are 20,000 employees. The Cleveland Clinic also operates other hospitals, including one opening late next year in Abu Dhabi.

Solar panels are envisioned for new buildings where rain water will be captured to support native plants.

Vinyl materials do not fit into the plan.

"One of the very first initiatives out of the box in 2007 was to look at the way we build," said Christina Vernon, an architect who is Executive Sustainability Officer for the Cleveland Clinic, in an interview with Plastics Today. "Our commitment to building safe and healthy places to work and heal is a critical part of our overall program and one of the best ways we can mitigate long-term environmental impacts."

The Cleveland Clinic has "drastically reduced" PVC materials that can be used in construction and renovation projects due to concerns about airborne phthalate particles, Vernon said in the interview. "We have found that the alternatives have been very successful," said Vernon.

Efforts are also under way to find alternatives to flexible PVC in IV bags and tubing, with the initial focus on high-risk areas such as neo-natal. The Cleveland Clinic even plans to report a PVC-DEHP reduction metric in its annual UN sustainability report.

"Our plan is to migrate products as they become available in the marketplace and are acceptable from a patient safety, and quality perspective," said Vernon. "That requires engagement of our physician and nursing staff to test and evaluate products. Engaging clinical professionals is critical, particularly when it comes to plastics."

Panels of physicians and nurses participate with supply chain professionals in reviews of critical contracts as they come up for renewal. Chemistry of materials is an increasingly important part of that process.

Some of the DEHP-PVC alternative materials have already been introduced for use as tubing that involves delivery of food, lipids, or transfer of bodily fluids. Sometimes prices may be higher. "If it's the right thing to do to protect our patients, then that's what we're going to do. We do have to be concerned about costs, but we believe that this is a patient safety issue."

Waste management is also a big part of the plan at the Cleveland Clinic.

Plastics strategy
  • Removal of PVC in IV bags and tubing is under way
  • Use of vinyl in building projects is "drastically reduced"
  • Plastics fit into major clinical recycling strategy
  • Bioplastics are targeted for food service ware
  • In 2010, the main campus recycling program diverted 30% of the total waste generated from landfills. That's another metric reported by the Cleveland Clinic for the main campus. Vernon said the program is now being taken to smaller healthcare centers. "That's a challenge because, as you know, volume is important for any recycling infrastructure," Vernon said.

    The Cleveland Clinic participated in the first major test program at the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council. A key finding of the study, conducted with Waste Management, and EPI Recycling Solutions, was that operating room plastics can be economically recycled with less environmental impact than an equivalent amount of virgin plastics. Design guidelines were developed listing suggested do's and don'ts.

    Vernon says she and other professionals at the Cleveland Clinic regularly do "waste audits" on random collections of trash from the campus to determine what other materials could be recovered and re-used.

    In another initiative, the Cleveland Clinic wants to transition to compostable bioplastics for food service ware. Food waste is already being composted at the main campus. Vernon said the Clinic is keeping a close eye on new technologies as they develop and has not yet determined a preference for any particular chemistry.