SPOKANE – While many of us think of hospitals and doctors’ offices as places where people get healthy, WSU College of Nursing doctoral student Beth Schenk also considers them big waste generators.
“Each day, the health care system in the U.S. creates about 7,000 tons of garbage,” she said. “And it’s a complex waste stream.”
Some of it is medical garbage, from the tissues and fluids left after medical procedures to the syringes that deliver vaccines. Some of it is ordinary trash, such as paper and plastic. And some of it is stuff you’d never think of as garbage: unused pills that aren’t disposed of properly and wind up dissolved in water sources.
Progress made to reduce waste
Schenk is a registered nurse at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, Mont. It’s part of the Providence Health System that includes Spokane’s Sacred Heart and Holy Family hospitals. She said she has worked for 20 years to make her facility a better environmental steward.

“My first recycling effort at my hospital was in the early ’90s,” she said. Since then, Schenk said St. Patrick has made progress, though “there was always a little resistance and ‘why does that matter?'”

Several years ago, her crusade received a boost from Providence’s regional office. She said administrators challenged the system’s 27 hospitals in Washington and Montana to do more to reduce waste.
It’s a mandate that isn’t unique. Schenk said hospitals around the nation are starting to realize their considerable environmental footprints, not just in terms of garbage but also in how much energy they use.
“We’re open all night, every night,” she said. “And we’re the second largest user of energy, per square foot, behind only convenience stores.”
Nurses are the ‘guinea pigs’
Schenk believes environmental advances in the health care system will be driven by nurses.
“There are three million of us,” she said. “We’re the guinea pigs” with some of the highest exposures to dangerous chemicals and substances in the health care system.
She urges nurses to pay closer attention to what’s around them in their facilities and advocate for change. She said even small gestures help, such as going back to cloth gowns instead of paper.
“It comes back always to how will this affect myself, my family, my children, my future relatives,” she said. “I encourage people to apply that concern to their work lives to help us transform our society and our way of doing things.”