AJN Article-May 2003: Environmentally Preferable Purchasing

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The American Journal of Nursing

May, 2003 - Volume 103, Issue 5

Environmentally Preferable Purchasing
How new policies can protect our environment.

By Ann Melamed, MA, RN

Q.   Our facility’s purchasing department has been discussing environmentally preferable purchasing. What is this and why is it important?

A.   Environmentally preferable purchasing promotes the procurement of products and services found to be less damaging to the environment and human health and also addresses occupational health and safety issues. Currently, the principles are voluntary, but since September 1998, all federal procurement officials are required to assess and give preference to those products and services that are environmentally preferable.

A hospital’s purchasing choices affect both the workplace and the ecosystem. Products that are environmentally preferable are less toxic (mercury free), contain fewer allergens (latex free), use less packaging (items are bought in bulk), contain recycled content (paper), are reusable (mattresses), and are energy efficient (appliances). An environmentally friendly service may include a hospital linen service that launders and reuses linens rather than using disposable ones.

Improving the health of workers and patients, potentially saving money, and enhancing a facility’s public image are the benefits of using these “green” products and services. Since potential problems (such as the disposal of used products) are addressed at the onset of the purchasing process, environmentally preferable purchasing is one of the best ways to prevent pollution and reduce costs. It’s preventive care for the environment, health care workers, and patients.

This type of purchasing can be as simple as buying recycled paper or as complex as analyzing the entire “life cycle” of a product—from manufacturing and distribution to use and disposal. The real cost of a product includes not only the original purchase price but also costs associated with disposal, occupational health, liability, and environmental impact. Some pro­ducts, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, are toxic during manufacturing, use, and disposal. (Approximately 25% of all health care products are made of PVC.) Its toxic cradle-to-grave life cycle was established in a case in Kentucky in which workers exposed to PVC at a manufacturing plant had an abnor­mally high rate of liver angiosarcoma, an exceedingly rare tumor. This case resulted in intense regulatory activity and new Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards for PVC exposure.

Nurses can challenge manufacturers to develop better products that don’t compromise the commitment of all health care professionals to “do no harm.” To implement such purchasing in your hospital, take a team approach.

  • Build a team composed of representatives from the purchasing department and health care professionals from various units and specialty areas of the hospital, including managers and frontline workers.
  • Develop a plan by identifying environmental goals, and determine which ones can be met through proper purchasing.
  • Develop criteria for evaluating new products, incorporating input from the users of the products, and determine the training needs of staff when new products are implemented.
  • Ensure that the team has the authority to make recommendations for product purchases.
  • Adjust schedules so that workers can meet during their shift while still providing adequate patient care.

The health care industry can significantly affect the environment by exhibiting its leadership through purchasing decisions. Nurses can use mission statements to develop and leverage purchasing policies that will guide their hospitals toward environmentally friendly products.

The rewards are tremendous, including cost containment, improved health and safety, and community and staff commitment. By advocating this type of purchasing at your facility, you can demonstrate nursing’s commitment to a safer, healthier world.


www.noharm.org (look for the “Going Green” pollution prevention kit)

Ann Melamed is the environmental health specialist with the ANA’s Department of Nurse Advocacy Programs.