From introducing electric vehicles to tackling food waste, the NHS is stepping up its efforts around sustainability. But the real game-changer for Europe’s biggest employer will be around how it links environmental practices with our health, discovers Jamie Hailstone
Over the last year six years, health trusts and hospitals have been working to cut carbon footprints as part of the NHS Sustainability Day campaign.
The annual event, which in 2017 will take place on March 23, gives trusts around the country a chance to highlight the work they are doing on a wide range of initiatives, covering everything from energy efficiency to recycling waste.
The campaign also runs regional road shows throughout the year and an annual events award to promote best practice.
With support from both NHS England and Public Health England, these projects have helped achieve financial savings of more than £5m in the last 18 months alone and cut carbon emissions by 35,000 tonnes, according to the campaign’s 2016 impact report.
For example, the Central Manchester Foundation Trust saved more than £200,000 since implementing a behaviour change programme across 36 departments, while the North East Ambulance Trust saved £14,000 after installing five solar PV systems.
And Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust has cut carbon emissions by 25% by building a new energy centre, which allows the trust to utilise waste heat to generate hot water.
‘The NHS is such a behemoth,’ says NHS Sustainability Day campaign manager, Scott Buckler. ‘It’s the biggest employer in Europe and the headlines always revolve around patient admissions or the junior doctor strikes. Sustainable development is not something which is generally top of the agenda.
‘Environmental impacts are strong and important for public health outcomes, but from an NHS perspective, this is about how we can utilise sustainable development to save money, and then spend that money on frontline care.’
Mr Buckler says some of the projects highlighted in the report have achieved savings in a relatively short period of time, but others have been more long-term, whose benefit will be felt in years to come.
‘If you change a menu or introduce a waste management programme, it’s something you can turn around and start to see working six months to a year,’ he adds. ‘But a combined heat and power system can take two years.’
Mr Buckler says a growing number of trusts are now investing a lot of time and money in making their transport systems more sustainable, with many investing in electric and hybrid vehicles. The report cites the example of Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation’s Trust, which has saved between £16,000 and £20,000 since becoming the first major trust in the country to switch from traditional diesel vans to a fleet of electric vehicles.
We are seeing more people concentrating on the impact they make as a hospital for the patient themselves, and how they can use sustainability to reduce admissions into accident and emergency – Scott Buckler, campaign manager for NHS Sustainability Day
Another increasingly important area is food. In the case of Northampton General Hospital, the organisation has gone from preparing less than 60% of meals onsite to more than 92%. It has also replaced food waste macerators with food waste digesters, which saves hot water and prevents fat from entering the sewage system.
Looking into the future, Mr Buckler says more and more trusts will move toward paperless offices and using shared services. He also predicts more hospitals will start reusing and sharing furniture and general equipment.
Another emerging area has been WELL certification, which involves designing new hospital buildings to improve health and wellbeing with a more human-centred approach.
‘We are also seeing more people concentrating on the impact they make as a hospital for the patient themselves, and how they can use sustainability to reduce admissions into accident and emergency,’ adds the campaign manager.
In addition, Mr Buckler believes NHS Sustainability encourages groups that work with the NHS to think about the environment.
‘We work with a lot of partners who are championing it, including Carillion and Capita, who have embedded sustainability in their core business model,’ he says.
‘Schools and higher education have all been part of things we’ve done in the past. Hospitals work very closely with community groups to talk outdoor food growing and how it can help people with dementia.
‘NHS Sustainability Day does have arms and legs in terms of spanning into different areas, but centrally we should be looking at our health system as a preventative system, rather than the cure,’ adds Mr Buckler.
‘We need to look at how we prevent people in the first place becoming ill and going to hospital through environmental practices. Hopefully in the next few years, we can start to implement more projects around prevention.’
Pictured, top: staff from North Bristol NHS Trust, overall winners of this year’s NHS Sustainability Day awards