The health care industry has been working hard to reduce its carbon footprint and is finally taking a proactive approach to sustainability and health. However, recent research shows that health care still contributes around 5% of global emissions — and that number is rising.
Additionally, the health care industry produces millions of tonnes of waste which ends up in landfills either in the United States or abroad. This is particularly concerning in high-income countries like the U.S., which produce around 0.5kg of hazardous waste per bed every day, leading to global waste management issues.
As a nurse, you may have noticed the waste produced by single-use plastics or carbon emissions in your workplace, but maybe you aren’t quite sure what you can do to help.
Fortunately, there is plenty that we can all do to reduce waste and combat climate change. Additionally, as a nurse, you’re in a great position to inspire others to value personal sustainability, too.
Our global dependency on energy isn’t going away. However, we do need to reconsider how we source our energy and should strive to use renewable energy whenever it is possible. Unfortunately, according to Yale’s Dr. Jodi Sherman, health care is lagging behind other industries that are taking a more progressive approach to combat their emissions.
By following in the footsteps of nurses like Barrera, you can find groups of like-minded health care professionals who want to take an active role in fighting climate change. This helps amplify the impact of your voice in your workplace and community, as you will be able to invite guest speakers and bring expert advice to your work.
Single-use plastics are wreaking havoc on our planet and its wild spaces. A recent UN report found that 85% of total marine waste is plastic, and experts predict that we will dump between 23 and 37 metric tonnes of plastic into our ocean every year by 2040.
This is a global issue and it can be hard to see how you or your workplace can make a difference. But, you can start at home by considering your own relationship with single-use items. That’s because only 9% of the plastics we use at home are recycled, and end up in landfills or our natural environment.
You can begin by making simple changes like packing your lunch in Tupperware and using your own to-go mug for coffee and tea. But, if you feel comfortable doing so, it might be worth raising the issue to decision-makers at your hospital to see if non-essential single-use plastics can be reduced in your workplace. This will make a significant impact that extends beyond your personal use and can give a great example for your patients to follow.
Lead By Example
As a nurse, people look up to you, and your actions carry meaning. This responsibility is a little unfair — after all, you’re just doing your job. But, it does give you a great opportunity to create meaningful change amongst those who will follow your example. So, if you have the time and energy, consider making a few holistic, sustainable changes to your lifestyle at home.
You can start by sourcing sustainable goods and materials. The easiest way to do this is to buy from local sellers who produce their goods in smaller batches. You can also search online via sites like Etsy for people who create their wares using recycled or sustainable materials. Following this, you can reconsider the way you dispose of your waste and can find creative solutions like composting, repairing instead of discarding, and upcycling.
These personal sustainability choices are meaningful in their own right. But, you can maximize their impact by leveraging social media and online platforms to your advantage. For example, you might consider starting a podcast or blog dedicated to combating climate change and can find plenty of examples of other nurses who have used their position to help save the planet.
As a nurse, you’re in a great position to start making personal sustainability choices that will leave a lasting impact on your workplace and community. That’s because the people you work with and serve look up to you, and may choose to follow in your example. Leading a sustainable lifestyle might seem daunting at first, but you can make it easier by connecting with climate advocacy groups like the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments who can support you and your climate-conscious choices.
Health care providers know that climate change will cause major health issues in the coming years. The CDC reports that climate change can cause “increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease, injuries and premature deaths related to extreme weather events,” and other pre-existing conditions will be exacerbated by factors like air pollution. The health care industry is currently bracing for the impact of the climate crisis, as climate change is predicted to cause 250,000 additional deaths per year.
The link between health care and the climate means nurses are in an ideal position to increase climate change awareness. In fact, in 2014, nurses collaborated with other health care workers to create the national and international policies which are being put in place today. But what can nurses do today to help save the planet and reduce the impact of climate change on health care?
Nurses are already incredibly busy, so it can be frustrating to even think about doing more — particularly when public health crises should be a priority for politicians. It’s okay to decide you don’t have the time to advocate for sustainability, and you shouldn’t feel bad about taking time to fulfill other priorities.
However, if you do have the time and energy to commit to a cause, then you will find yourself well equipped to succeed. That’s because nurses are interdisciplinary thinkers who can understand issues and topics from many different perspectives. In fact, the skills developed in nursing are in high demand in other industries, as many who work in public health have transitioned to careers in the private sector or with governmental organizations. This puts nurses in the unique position of overlap: your knowledge and experience are specific enough to be authoritative and reputable, and your skills are diverse enough to connect with a wide audience that might otherwise be missed by public health and climate messaging.
You’ve also seen the impact of public health crises firsthand. This means you play a pivotal role in underlining the need for climate-positive actions and legislation; otherwise, we will continue to see a rise in climate-change-related illness and deaths. If you wish to become an advocate, you can find support through initiatives like the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments.
Advocating for Public Health
As a nurse, your voice carries credibility and, when used correctly, can capture the imagination of the public. This means that publicizing your advocacy for health-related initiatives, programs, and legislation will draw people from unexpected demographics.
The way you choose to advocate for public health awareness is really up to you — and you’ll need to ensure you’re in line with the law before sharing information. However, social media platforms can amplify your message and will allow you to connect with new audiences.
If you’re not sure of how you can start, consider finding some reputable role models online, like Dr. Lisa Fitzpatrick. Dr. Fitzpatrick hosts a podcast and uses her platform to advocate for improved health literacy. She provides a great example of a health care professional engaging with social issues and regularly highlights contemporary issues in nursing. You can follow suit by creating podcasts, posting relevant and peer-reviewed content, and demystifying public health entities through social media channels.
Clean water is a basic right and is essential for the health of all citizens. Nurses also rely on a regular supply of clean water to stop the spread of disease. Many of us assume that water supplies in the United States are universally clean and healthy, but this is not the case. Across the nation, millions of Americans experience waterborne illnesses every year — low-income populations and some communities of color are more likely to be affected by unhealthy water supplies.
Nurses who are concerned about current attempts to repeal the Clean Water Rule (CWR) can leverage the credibility of their voice in the public space and can raise awareness about the current attempts to undermine universal access to clean water.
Nurses can also create greater awareness about the prevalence of unsafe water in homes, and reduce the number of patients admitted to hospitals with waterborne illnesses. For example, it’s reported that 10% of homes in the United States currently have significant water leaks. This means that homeowners are at risk from contaminated water and mold-related conditions like respiratory infections, chronic fatigue, and nausea. Increased public awareness can help homeowners spot the signs of unsafe water in their homes, and you can help proactively prevent illness.
The food industry is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. Every year, nearly half of all fruit and vegetables produced globally are thrown away as waste. This causes billions of dollars in losses and adds needless greenhouse gases to the atmosphere — all while 811 million people go hungry every day.
Unfortunately, the health care industry is a major culprit in producing food waste. Studies show that hospitals produce two to three times more food waste than other food service sectors, and only 16% of hospitals donate their excess food.
As a nurse, you can push for food to be donated to local charities and can ask administrators to change service practices, so food is only served to patients when they actually ask for it. This can reduce food waste by 30%, and can make a real impact in your local community. Additionally, you can publicly advocate for sustainable farming practices which centralize sustainability and help to reduce food waste.
Sustainable farming practices are typically smaller and do not rely on chemical fertilizers, monocropping, or pesticides. This means their basic practices are more sustainable, and — due to their smaller scale — are inherently more waste-efficient. You can advocate for sustainable farming by posting relevant, accurate resources online and by partnering with groups like Farmworker Justice.
Nurses play a vital role in creating awareness around the social issues which impact health. Nurses can take to social media and host podcasts to share their experiences of climate change in health care, and can actively influence legislation by teaming with other health care professionals and organizations that are committed to fighting the climate crisis.
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