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Such a Waste

I’m not a big fan of hospitals.  Oh, I know the great things that they can do to keep us healthy, but they make me nervous. I’m not exactly sure why.  It could be because I don’t understand the medical lingo.  It could be because of the pain and suffering that I know lies behind the patient doors and I am unable to offer any assistance.  It could be a variety of things, but most recently it is because I have witnessed the tremendous amount of waste and inefficient energy use that flows out of hospitals and I am unable to see how to offer sustainable recommendations without risking a decline in quality patient care.  There’s a fine line between a sterile first-time use of medical equipment and  a sterilized, re-manufactured second-time use of the same equipment. I’m not exactly sure why, but as a culture we have in our minds that only first time use is acceptable. Especially if you are the patient that is using the equipment.

I read a report in the Scientific American recently that said that health care facilities dispose of more than four million pounds of medical waste each year. That certainly seems like a lot of waste, but I didn’t realize how much of it is unnecessary until I spent a few nights in the hospital last week. As a hospital patient I was relieved to see that my equipment, surgical tools, syringes and other medical devices were all sterilized, in their own bags and seemingly unused by other humans.  But as an environmentalist, a part of me cringed each time I saw another piece of waste hit the trash can.  Even worse, some of the waste had not even been used, but was part of a larger “kit” of supplies.  Double cringe.

And yet every time I was administered a drug, I was relieved to see that each of my syringes, IVs and tubes were individually wrapped and new.  If one of my syringes had come with a “made from 30% recyclable material” sticker on it, I might have sent it back and requested a brand new one.  But why is that?  I have no trouble eating my food off of reusable dishes.  I reuse my water bottle on a daily basis and I am quite certain it is not cleaned under the most sterile of conditions.  I reuse toothbrushes, contacts, and other toiletries regularly.  All of these are by no mean sterile, but are being put into my body.  What makes it so different?

The answer, I’m afraid, lies in the fact that we have come to equate “quality medical care” with “single use” devices.  Despite the fact that much of the medical equipment and supplies we use today can be “reprocessed” to be as high quality as first time use, many of us (myself included) prefer to see that the supplies being used on us have not been used by others.  And so, the medical waste piles up as  elastic bandages, pressure infuser bags, tourniquet cuffs, drills, compression sleeves, and general-use surgical scissors are thrown into the trash can rather than put aside to be reprocessed – cleaned, sterilized, and tested for quality – and individually wrapped for another patient’s use.

Unfortunately, the waste is not occurring just in hospitals. After developing a slight infection following my surgery two weeks ago, I was required to take a twice-daily infusion of an antibiotic.  Only not in the hospital – this infusion I would do at home.  The day I arrived home, I received a huge box filled with elastomeric (accuflo) pumps, saline syringes, heparin syringes, alcohol wipes, bandages, surgical tape and a lot of other supplies that I’m not even sure how to use.  Twice a day, I get an infusion and use one pump, two saline syringes, and two heparin syringes. If I’m doing the math right, that equates to 28 pumps and 112 syringes over the 2 week period that I received the infusions. And they all get thrown in the trash when I am done.  I had inquired about how to recycle them and received a funny look in return.  So each day my trash can fills up with the used medical supplies.  Supplies I’m very sure could be reprocessed if given a chance.

I am not a medical expert or an expert in hospitality sustainability, but I am a medical consumer. Although I want my medical environment to be as safe and sterile as possible, I know that there must be a way to reduce the waste associated with it.  We cannot continue to throw this waste into our landfills and assume that it will do no harm.  If it can be used to improve the health of one person, we certainly don’t want it to cause harm to another down the road.

I love apple pie.  Actually, I love most pies – key lime, lemon meringue and a wonderful gem called chess pie here in the Carolinas.  My favorite pies, however, are fruit pies.  Apple, cherry, blueberry, strawberry.  I could go on and on, but I’m making myself hungry.

Last week, while sharing a slice of apple pie with a friend, I heard disturbing news that would make any fruit lover shudder.  Apparently the early spring that the entire Northeast has enjoyed is causing a shortage of …. apples.  And not just apples, but also cherries, blueberries and other fruit crops.  The reason for this shortage?  Well, fruit trees do not generally follow an internal calendar and instead rely on the warmth of the sun to determine when to sprout leaves and flowers that will eventually turn into the fruit that we all love.

Ordinarily, the natural ebb and flow of the seasons yield fruit crops that we all can enjoy.  But this year, spring came early.  The warmth in March caused fruit trees in orchards from Virginia to Michigan to stretch their limbs out and bloom early.  Which would have been wonderful for everyone except for the heavy frost that hit in April.  And killed the crops.  Literally.

Here’s one thing you don’t think of when you think of global climate change – apples.  Or cherries, or blueberries or even oranges.  We expect our fruit to follow the normal seasonal schedule and arrive in our grocery stores (or produce boxes!) on time and as yummy as ever.  But when nature does not follow the “normal” schedule, even the trees and plants become confused.  And unfortunately that means less tasty fruit for you and me. And even worse, less revenue for the fruit farmers.

I do not claim to be a climate change expert, but I do know that the rising amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere can (and do) cause disruptions to the natural rhythm of the seasons.  While the early spring encourages us to throw on our shorts and flip flops and enjoy the warm weather, it is easy to forget how the early warmth may be harming other parts of the ecosystem.  Other parts that we depend on for food, water and yes, even apples.

So what did I do after I learned the news about the shortage of apples?  I went home and mowed my lawn with my push mower powered entirely by carbon-free me – with a little help from that yummy apple pie.

Over the years, my husband and I have developed a running joke when we go out to eat.  Each time we see something listed on a menu as “locally sourced,” we assume that it is just a way for the restaurant to charge more – kind of a loyalty program for locals.  We roll our eyes as if to acknowledge that we are on to this marketing ploy, this “take pride in your country and buy American” type of manipulation that in the past had only been used by auto makers and flag manufacturers.  We nod conspiratorially at each other – yep, here’s another restaurant trying to take advantage of the green movement.

In reality, however, I know this is not what they are doing. All jokes aside, we generally order the local foods because they taste fresh and yummy.  When we travel, we do this because we want to taste the foods that are local to the community.  When we are home, we want to support our local farmers and our local restaurants.  As a graduate of an environmental school, I am very aware of the benefits of locally grown foods.  How a strawberry picked 25 miles away in an organic garden is much more tasty and healthy (and  not coincidentally, environmentally sustainable) than one picked in California (sorry California friends!).

But while I appreciate the tastiness of locally sourced foods at restaurants, it has only been recently that this idea of local foods has come home to my own kitchen.  Up until a year ago, I purchased my fruits and vegetables at the neighborhood grocery store. While I was picking up my usual household items, I would comb through the produce department and purchase my fruits and vegetables. If they looked fresh, I assumed they were.  Even if they just flew in from Mexico.  Mexico is local to someone, isn’t it?  While the produce didn’t always taste exceptional, my kids would eat it and I felt successful in getting my family to eat their daily requirements of fruits and vegetables.

Last year, my outlook on local foods changed. After experiencing some health issues and reading more about the harm that pesticides can do to the produce, to our land and to our bodies, I decided to focus more on organic foods.  And yes, I decided to look more closely at  locally sourced foods.

A yummy selection of fruits and vegetables from The Produce Box

Now, when I say locally sourced, I do not mean a garden in my back yard.  My thumbs are not green enough for that.  No, I am talking about my new love  – the Produce Box.  Ah, the Produce Box.  Once a week, a box of deliciously fresh and tasty fruits and vegetables arrive at my door (well, usually my cooler) just waiting to be chopped, cooked, or just popped into our mouths.  That first moment when I pull the food out of the cooler and try to think about what I will fix with it are magical.  And this is coming from someone who has never cooked bok choy in her life.  I rush to the computer and look up all sorts of crazy recipes to make with my fresh, locally sourced food. The most crazy thing about it is that my kids are eating these new (and not so exotic) vegetables too.  Kale chips anyone?

Some friends have argued that the local foods in the produce box or at stores like Whole Foods are more expensive.  I suppose this may be true – I have not done a complete breakdown of the costs.  But, I will tell you one thing.  Locally sourced food tastes better, it is better for us and it supports our community.  I’ll pay an extra 5 cents an apple for those benefits.

My box arrives tomorrow and I can’t wait.  This week I’ve chose Box ‘B’:  Blueberries, Broccoli, Red Potatoes, Beets, Kale, Sweet Onions, Tomato.  Yum … my mouth is watering already.  Anyone have a good recipe for Beets?

My neighbor has a beautiful lawn. It is the envy of many domestic mowers in the neighborhood, and I would imagine some professional mowers as well. Because I know his family eats a strictly vegetarian and organic diet, I am pretty sure he uses no pesticides on his lawn. But what is more remarkable than that, he uses a push mower.  Yes, his lawn is beautiful and he uses a push mower.  No, we are not living in the 1950’s.

I first noticed the mower when I was sitting outside enjoying a beautiful Spring day. There was a nice breeze blowing and I could hear the birds singing.  I glanced over and saw my neighbor pushing his mower and there was … no sound. That’s not entirely correct – there were plenty of sounds.  Birds chirping, children laughing, the sound of the UPS delivery truck as it made its rounds through our neighborhood.  But there was no loud roar from a 7.25 ft-lb gross torque gas engine.  I do not actually know what that means, I looked it up.

My point is this.  His mower was noiseless because it had no engine.  And no engine means no carbon emissions. It also means no noise and apparently it leads to a beautiful lawn. I became very jealous and immediately told my husband about it when he came home from work. Which is how we ended up with a noiseless, engine-less, beautiful push mower of our own.  Our old mower was on its last leg and we decided to take the sustainable path – a push mower guaranteed to give us a lawn as beautiful (or more beautiful) than it was before.

Almost before my husband could take the mower out of the box to make its maiden voyage across our lawn, my two daughters wanted to help.  Because the mower has no engine, it is also very light.  So my 7- and 8-year old girls were able to easily push the mower around the yard, watching the grass clippings fly out and laughing with glee.  Yet another benefit of a push mower – extra helpers.

It wasn’t until my husband and I looked out at the newly mowed lawn, our two tired daughters at our side, that we realized the one downfall of our new machine.  It does not cut weeds. In between the lovely groomed grass were ugly spikes of crab grass. Towering above the grass blades and taunting us.

“That can’t be right,” I said to my husband, “we must have done something wrong.”  I raced inside to look up the online owners manual and it stated without apologies, “If grass over 6″ long or tall weeds are present, they may be knocked down by the mower’s front fork assembly. If this happens, either pull these long stragglers by hand or make a second mowing pass to try and cut them.

I looked at my two tired daughters.  They certainly would be no help in pulling the long stragglers by hand.  I looked at my husband.  Without giving it a second thought, he returned to the garage, took out the old gas-powered mower, started it up and noisily re-mowed the grass.  Problem taken care of … for now.

We now own two lawn mowers.  One is a environmentalist’s dream – except it won’t cut down the weeds.  The other will cut down everything in its path, but is loud and not environmentally friendly.  The right thing to do is pull up all the weeds by hand.  But that, I’m afraid, might take us awhile.  In the meantime, I’ll let my little workers rest and try it again next weekend. Anyone interested in a crab-grass pulling party?

I am an environmentalist. I am an environmentalist.  I am an environmentalist.  

No matter how I say it, I end up questioning this statement just a little bit. I am about to graduate from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment with a Masters in Environmental Management, but I just can’t quite bring myself to call myself an environmentalist.  I have the education to be one.  I have the passion and the inspiration.  So, what is holding me back from announcing to the world, “I AM AN ENVIRONMENTALIST?”

Well, for one thing, I don’t always act like one.  It’s not that I don’t want to live sustainably. It’s just that over the years I have built up habits and beliefs that are too difficult to change.  Or at least too difficult to change easily.

Some of these habits. like the fact that I LOVE to travel, will never change.  If each of us is given a certain level of carbon that we are allowed to use up, I might very well use it all on traveling.  There are just too many interesting and beautiful places to visit in the world.  And watching “The Amazing Race” from my cozy couch is NOT the same thing as being there.

Some of my habits have formed because I have grown up in this great land of plenty.  We have everything at our fingertips and often don’t realize the trip our purchases had to take to get here.  Our food, our electronics, even our clothes, are sometimes made under un-sustainable and un-environmentally friendly conditions.  But with the swipe of a credit card, I can purchase just about anything and easily close my mind to who (or what) might be suffering to get it to me.

Recently, some unsustainable habits have developed because I have two adorable children.  Our lives move quickly and I often don’t have the time to think through my decisions. Fast food, handheld electronic games and television have become a part of our lives.  Getting ourselves outside to enjoy the world around us can be challenging, especially with hockey practice, piano lessons and all the other pulls on our precious time.

I’ll admit it.  It’s easy to continue through my day without making any changes. It’s a nice routine. But unless we start to look at the world more globally and think about how our everyday decisions and actions might affect our planet, our children and grandchildren may have to make some difficult choices.

It’s a confusing world.  I know that I need to make some changes in my life.  And I know a lot of ways to do it.  The trick is to actually take the steps and start changing my habits.

So, that’s me … I am a CONFUSED environmentalist. But I am an environmentalist and I am going to work my way through the changes I need to make to live in a more sustainable world. Come join me in my journey!

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