Hospitals & Facilities

How health systems are working to reduce their carbon footprints

Health systems have deployed strategies from eliminating certain anesthetic gases to making their menus vegan-friendly.
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· 5 min read

Few industries have a larger carbon footprint than healthcare.

The sector contributes about 8.5% of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions, and hospitals contribute roughly 36% of that percentage, according to the White House. And a 2020 study found that, globally, the US healthcare system is responsible for around 4.6% of greenhouse gas emissions. The industry’s carbon footprint has grown in recent years, as emissions increased 6% between 2010 and 2018, the study found.

Given the urgent need for healthcare to reduce its carbon footprint and create a greener future, many health systems are setting sustainability goals. From these efforts, some common themes have emerged, including switching anesthetic gases and purchasing more sustainable food products.

Common priorities

One of New York-based Northwell Health’s sustainability priorities is reducing anesthetic gas emissions, Donna Drummond, the system’s chief sustainability officer, told Healthcare Brew.

Northwell eliminated the use of desflurane, one of the most environmentally harmful anesthetic gases, Drummond said. The health system also switched to lower-carbon alternative sevoflurane, which Drummond said is cheaper. Desflurane costs about $13.20 per case, while sevoflurane costs $0.63 per case, according to a 2015 study from Vanderbilt University.

“It’s a great example of where you got a cost benefit and also a sustainability benefit,” Drummond said.

Northwell has not been so good at recycling in the past, Drummond said, so it hired an expert dedicated to increasing the system’s waste reduction efforts.

“I’m going to be completely honest with you: When you’re not so good at something, it’s easy to say you’re gonna make a really big jump because your starting point wasn’t so good,” Drummond said. “Some of our sites were decent at recycling and some of our sites, like the Forest Hills hospital—they’ve got no space to collect recycling. So they weren’t recycling.”

Christina McNeilis, associate director of corporate sustainability at Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, said one of the areas the system has focused on is making its food purchasing more sustainable. Food is a big source of carbon emissions, and 34% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions were food-related in 2015, according to a 2021 study. Plus, 10%–15% of hospital waste is related to food, a 2022 study found.

“There are different things that have been proven to work really well, like putting a plant-based option at the top of the menu instead of further down as just a footnote,” McNeilis said.

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Mount Sinai now purchases less of the more environmentally harsh food products—like ruminant meats, which tend to come from cattle—and buys more seafood and poultry instead.

Hundreds of hospitals have also signed a climate pledge that the Department of Health and Human Services introduced in 2022, promising to cut their greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030 and to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

McNeilis said the pledge is Mount Sinai’s “biggest priority,” and that the health systems that signed the pledge are working together to share sustainability strategies.

“We work really well collaboratively to try to meet these goals because we all face the exact same challenges,” she said. “The pledge was a really wonderful public-private partnership where we can use the federal government resources and our local government resources and collaborate with our peers in the industry to all meet the same goals.”

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Progress made

Both Mount Sinai and Northwell have reported modest success with their sustainability initiatives.

Mount Sinai has reduced energy-related emissions by 35% at its flagship campus, Mount Sinai Hospital, and by 25% across the rest of the system’s eight hospitals, McNeilis said.

Mount Sinai is also in the process of phasing out desflurane gas, and has decreased its anesthetic gas emissions by 50%, McNeilis said.

Charles Cutchall, VP of infrastructure and chief engineering officer at Northwell, said the system has made significant progress on its goal to lower electricity usage 10% by 2027, primarily through rethinking building design strategies.

“We do about a billion dollars a year in construction every year, so we’re taking a look at the designs and ensuring that we’re utilizing the most energy-efficient materials,” Cutchall said.

A team effort

While many health systems have incorporated sustainability strategies into their day-to-day, there’s still a lot of work needed to create a greener future.

Drummond said she believes health systems have a responsibility to work toward sustainability, as do other parts of the overall system, like suppliers and pharma companies.

“Everybody has to come in together as a team,” Drummond said. “There’s a role for health systems […] but ultimately the companies that are making products—that are causing emissions—have to be conscious about it.”

Navigate the healthcare industry

Healthcare Brew covers pharmaceutical developments, health startups, the latest tech, and how it impacts hospitals and providers to keep administrators and providers informed.