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Going 'green' in long-term care

January 1, 2009
by Marty Beil, BS
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Environmentally friendly practices in your facility can help cut expenses and preserve the planet

As times quickly change, environmental responsibility has become a national issue and is being discussed in politics, the business world, communities, and at home. The general meaning of the term “green” has developed from movements that share many ideas—ecology, environmentalism, and conservation. Ideas of green can easily be implemented into long-term care facilities.

Former Vice President Al Gore's movie on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, brought environmental responsibility to the mainstream public. From the largest company to the individual consumer, public expectations around environmental concerns are developing rapidly. It has become more than “recycle, reduce, and reuse” for consumers. As economic concerns loom, the green movement is working its way into all facets of American industry, units of government, and service.

During the early 1990s, I began my journey to understand environmental issues involved with cleaning chemicals. I was able to see firsthand the use of caustic products in the name of disinfection. When managing maintenance and housekeeping departments at various healthcare facilities, I identified the use and application of chemicals and developed protocols for diluted products that reduced costs and made the jobs of housekeepers less dangerous by identifying safer products. At that time, new developments were taking place in the field of cleaning, maintenance, and safety for organizations.

Environmental stewardship

Green Seal, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, began implementing cleaning product standards in 1991.1 According to Green Seal, the definition of green cleaning is the use of products and procedures that are more healthful and have less environmental impact than others that serve the same function.2 In the middle 1990s, governmental standards were researched and established in an effort with the EPA and Aastrom Biosciences, Inc., for environmentally preferable cleaners.

In 1998, I became an environmental services director in an assisted living/healthcare facility of the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) in Mankato, Minnesota. Established in 1912, SSND of Mankato is one of 20 Catholic international provinces throughout the world. I had the opportunity to work with the Center for Earth Spirituality and Rural Ministry (CESRM), founded in 1996, on staff development projects for Environmental Services. In interacting with the sisters of this ministry, I was introduced to the concepts of environmental stewardship and ecological awareness. These ideas blended well with my own cleaning ideas and product background.

Recent advancements in the cleaning industry have led to products that perform as well as traditional counterparts that are more caustic. Since 2003, Environmental Services of SSND has used Green Seal cleaning products that are flexible enough to be used more than just as a general cleaner. Most important, the products are readily biodegradable with no toxins or carcinogens, and save money. Environmental Services is using paper products and hand soaps that have the Green Seal, in addition to chemical cleaner changes. Currently, Environmental Services is searching for new technology to meet its needs. Biodegradable garbage bags made of cornstarch materials are now available. New floor strippers and wax have just been released as well, and SSND has made our facility available as a test site for new Green Seal products. New guidelines are being established for paper products, matting systems, air control, recycling programs, and natural light levels.

Buildings and structures

A completely new outlook is being established about buildings and structures. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is the nation's foremost leader in the building industry, working to promote facilities that are environmentally responsible, profitable, and healthy places to live and work. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a green building rating system developed by the USGBC as a voluntary, consensus-based standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings.3

At SSND, Notre Dame Hall was completed in 2004. Isidore and Theresa halls were remodeled. The projects approached the renovation with green values in mind. Original 1912 materials were used, such as brick, stone, and original doors. The carpeting contains low chemical content and is mostly cleaned by using water. The green concept can also be applied to the use of energy. Newer SSND living spaces use natural light, energy-efficient light, and windows. Energy-efficient boilers were installed and the use of a chiller and recovery ventilators create major energy savings. Contracting Business magazine, which featured the SSND remodel, summarized the project as bringing a 100-year-old facility into the 21st century.4