Providence waste recycling facility benefits people and the planet

December 1, 2015

By VICKI ALLEN

Green teams, super sacks and people who otherwise would be denied meaningful employment make Providence Health & Services – Oregon Region a model in hospital waste recycling.

Under Michael Geller, Providence's sustainability manager for the Oregon region, six hospitals send recyclable waste to its own facility in Portland. There, employees with developmental disabilities sort and bale the materials, which are then sold to local vendors.

Employees sort materials at Providence Health & Services – Oregon Region's recycling center in Portland. The center employs workers through a sheltered workshop program. Practice Greenhealth considers the facility's recycling rate among the "best of the best."
The program was launched 15 years ago in the basement of one of the Providence Portland-area hospitals. "We talk about creating healthy communities together, and this is one way to do it, by keeping material out of landfills and creating jobs," Geller said. "Providing meaningful employment to this workforce is another example of how we support the community we serve."

Eight people from a sheltered workshop program, under the guidance of two trainers, sort an average of 5,400 pounds of material a day, Geller said. That is about 36 "super sacks" that arrive from the hospitals on Providence trucks, up from the daily average of about 10 of the 150-pound sacks eight years ago.

Plastics, bubble wraps, bottles, cans, packaging, cardboard and other materials all go into bags together to be sorted at the center. "If you want to make a program successful, you want to make it easy for caregivers in the hospital to recycle, so we put everything in one blue bag," Geller said.

Thousands of people in the health care system contribute to the program, working to keep medical waste and other contaminants out of the recycling stream. "Green teams" comprised of committed people throughout the system — nurses, grounds-keepers, custodians and a range of other employees — take the lead in finding ways to keep contaminants out of the super sacks.

"Green teams are people with a passion for recycling. One of our core values is stewardship of the earth, and that came from our sisters in 1856," Geller said in reference to the year the Sisters of Providence arrived in the Pacific Northwest. "So we find the passionate people who want to help come up with the ideas and the programs they want to do. It really helps empower the staff."

The result is a program that uses the facility to recycle 56 percent of the waste stream of the six participating hospitals of the health care system.

"Providence's recycling and waste diversion program are known nationally," said Janet Howard of Practice Greenhealth, the leading membership and networking organization promoting sustainable health care. "What Mike Geller has achieved there as far as total segregation of materials onsite is the best of the best," she said of the recycling rate.

A key to that rate is minimizing medical waste contamination in the super sacks. "Training, training, training" is essential for keeping medical waste out of the recycling stream, Geller said, but some contaminants inevitably slip in. "Honestly, when you've got 6,000 people in a program like this, you're going to get some contamination occasionally."

When it is found, he said, "We go back to the hospital" to work to determine the source of the contamination and how to prevent it from recurring. Recycling facility workers wear gloves to protect themselves from exposure to medical waste.

A key partner in Providence's program, Denton Plastics, buys the hospitals' used blue wrap, a filmy material used to protect sterilized surgical tools and trays, along with other film and rigid plastics. Cardboard, paper, glass and other materials go to other vendors.

"They've set up a good model for making sure the product is free of contaminants when it comes to us because we are a large manufacturer of plastic material, and we need to make sure the material is clean and ready to go," said Nicole Janssen, president of the family-owned Portland company.

Denton processes the material by grinding, pelletizing or other means to make plastic compounds and blends that it sells back to local manufacturers.

"There are special challenges (for hospital recycling), but it's all in the make up of how they are collecting the material and if they are properly sorting it," Janssen said. "You can't go back and unscramble the egg."

To Providence, a major benefit of the partnership with Denton is that the plastic waste is not offloaded to developing countries, where material that is dangerous or difficult to recycle often winds up.

"Other companies will ship to a Third World country, and who knows what happens to it then? But they recycle all or part of it, creating more jobs in the community and keeping waste in-country so we know what happens to our recycling," Geller said of Denton.

Geller said there is room for growth in the program and he is trying to work out logistics to incorporate the two Oregon hospitals that are far away from Portland.

While the recycling program saves Providence money on landfill fees, Geller said that it does not break even and that the growing program "requires more staff, more overhead."

"It's about being good stewards of the earth by keeping material out of landfills, but it's also about providing jobs to the underemployed," he said.

Managing the recycling center is only part of his job, but Geller said he finds it the most rewarding.

"When I go to the center and talk to the clients, they're excited to be there. They work in health care and they love coming to the facility. We've expanded the center to make it nicer for them, to give them a place to come every day," he said.

"I do a lot of great work with a lot of great people, but at the end of the day when I can provide these jobs and go over and see these clients enjoying life, I think that's such a great part of my job."

 

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