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Meet Helen and Sonja

GreenCare recently launched a series called, ‘Ask Sonja & Helen’, as a way to answer questions about recycling at Lower Mainland hospitals and residential care sites. We sat down with Helen and Sonja to find out who they are, what is unique about the Recycling Renewal Program and what the ‘Ask Sonja & Helen’ series hopes to achieve.

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Q. Who are you and what do you do with GreenCare?

Helen –I’m the Recycling and Sustainability Coordinator for Fraser Health. Most of my work centers on implementing the Recycling Renewal Program into new sites. This includes putting bins out where they’re needed and leading staff trainings so everyone knows what goes in each.

Sonja –I’m also a Recycling and Sustainability Coordinator but for VCH, PHC and PHSA. Hospitals and residential care sites in these health organizations already have the Recycling Renewal Program, so now I look at ways to reduce contamination in these bins. I do this by ensuring that everyone has updated equipment and signage, running training sessions for health care staff and creating educational resources. 

Q. What is the ‘Ask Helen & Sonja’ segment trying to achieve?

H - We are giving people an opportunity to ask questions. Recycling is a topic that often comes with a lot of questions about the correct ways to dispose of waste. The segment is also useful for flagging items that are a problem or confusing – even if no one has asked us directly. It is a useful tool for providing bite-sized information, which folks can remember and take back to their workplace.

S – It also provides the ‘why?’ As soon as health care staff understand why they need to care about where they drop their recyclables, we tend to see better results.

Q. Why is recycling so important in health care facilities?

H – We’re all becoming more aware of how environmental issues aren’t really just environmental issues, they’re issues that touch on everything. There is no dividing line between something that impacts the environment and something that impacts our health. Recycling is a good way of keeping waste out of landfills and incinerators, which have potential health impacts, such as ground leachate or particulates and air pollution from incineration. In healthcare, I think it is important that we practice what we preach – not only curing people and looking after the sick,  also preventing and stopping people from getting sick in the first place. One way we can do that is to look after our natural environment.

Q. What makes health care’s recycling program unique or challenging?

S – Recycling in hospitals is not the same as recycling at home. Health care staff need to learn to approach recycling differently at work, as there are higher contamination risks associated with medical waste.

Initially, when we launched the recycling program, we had a lot of contamination, as staff thought they could recycle more than they can. For example, a nurse might not have used a plastic medical item, for example a urinal, therefore thinking it could be recycled. Unfortunately, when an item that might have come into contact with bodily fluids, chemicals or medicine makes its way to a recycling vendor, alarm bells are raised. Items are hand sorted on a conveyor belt. The staff sorting the recycling don’t know what that item has been in contact with and if it was something that could potentially harm them.

In health care, we need to think of that person sorting the waste. Our recycling Q’s help clarify the correct way of doing this.

Q. You have been working with GreenCare’s Recycling Renewal Program for quite some time. Do you have any stories to share?

S – I am always surprised and impressed when I arrive at a site to implement and recruit recycling champions and I meet people that have already started recycling on their own. Often, these champions have been taking recycling home, encouraging their coworkers, and creating signage with information on what goes into each bin. It is inspiring when I find staff that care about the importance of recycling in connection to health and the environment. A nurse recently said, “It helps us think about the amount of supplies we use with patients, so we reduce that waste and have higher moral because we are doing something good.” It is really the people that we work with who care and are making an extra effort to monitor bins and educate their fellow staff.

Q. What type of questions would you like to hear from the GreenCare community?

H – Anything that people are just not sure about. I feel like there are bound to be items that people are not 100% certain about. What are people actually throwing away? We can talk about coffee cups but in the lab, you don’t have a coffee cup, you have other stuff. And it is that other stuff that we want to know about.

S – At the end of our articles, we always say send us your stories, too. So it doesn’t have to be a question, it can actually be something that is working well. We’d love to share that, as often that inspires others.

Q. Anything else you would like to share with staff from across the LMHOs?

S – The Recycling Renewal Program’s success is due to the dedicated efforts of staff from across the Lower Mainland Health Organizations. We are appreciative of the coordinated efforts of staff, and hope that we can better support these efforts moving forward. In a recent survey, health care staff identified recycling as the top action they could commit to, noting that the best thing we can do for the environment is separate our waste correctly. In the end, it is not just for the environment but also for patient care. We are making efforts to strengthen the program and to ensure that we don’t pay more for waste than we need to. Staff participation is paramount to these efforts.

Recycling correctly is also vital for the health and safety of everyone who handles waste along the way – whether it is the housekeepers at the hospital or the recycling staff at the vendor. There are many reasons why correct disposal is the way to go.

We look forward to answering any questions and making it easier for staff to dispose of their recyclables.