Case Study: Recycling at Gundersen Health System

Case Study: Recycling at Gundersen Health System

How Walking in Staff’s Shoes and Keeping Space in Mind Led to Program Success

Gundersen Health System is a physician-led, not-for profit healthcare system with locations throughout western Wisconsin, northeastern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota. Gundersen facilities include a teaching hospital a Level II Trauma and Emergency Center, and is repeatedly named among the top 50 hospitals in the nation.

Gundersen Health System’s recycling program has grown from paper and cardboard to include plastic, blue wrap, and more. They achieved a 54% total recycle and reuse rate for the solid waste stream in 2016 for the La Crosse Campus, saving the organization approximately $70,000, of which $26,727 was from plastics alone.

However, the road to progress was not always smooth. Even with a supportive CEO and committed early-adopters, culture change was needed throughout the organization, and space and time were at a premium for everyone involved. Perhaps your hospital has faced similar issues, which is why a closer look at Gundersen’s approach can be invaluable in helping other systems overcome obstacles to plastics recycling.

A Walk in Their Shoes

One significant way that Gundersen helped foster culture change and make sure its recycling initiatives penetrated the full organization was to literally walk in the staff’s shoes. Understanding that they were up against the myth that more recycling = more work (when really the net output is the same, only the balance between waste and recycle changes), the Environmental Compliance department literally walked daily routes with housekeeping to map their flow, then did the same for nursing staff.

These walk-alongs became the basis for detailed floorplan maps (including all bins and receptacles), which were used to design recycling processes and routes to be as smooth and integrated as possible into the hospital’s existing flow. One important lesson learned was to include EVS in this step, rather than looping them in later—adding that extra set of “shoes”

The result of this attention to detail and to the needs of their staff resulted in increased internal engagement—staff began to regularly suggest additional materials for future recycling and were excited to be part of something bigger. This personal tough has also had a positive impact on vendor relationships; steps like physically showing the recycler real materials, and having them talk directly with the infection control team show the hospital’s commitment to understanding contamination concerns vendors, and to bringing vendors along for the ride.

Space Matters

Another issue that needed some special care when expanding recycling was space. With limited space available and many different types of rooms to take into account, careful planning was needed.

Gundersen tackled this by first implementing tight inventory controls on the front end, to ensure that unnecessary supplies never entered patient rooms in the first place. The next step was to analyze contamination risk based on patient condition, and then to rely on a combination of staff judgment and regular meetings (including running practice sample scenarios) to figure out a process that worked for each particular scenario. For example, if the patient is under contact precautions, staff weigh whether time allows them to disinfect items for recycling or not. Regular audits of bins and trash have shown this approach to be very successful, and continues to refine itself over time.

The sustainability team also relied on a mix of solutions to keep the space needs of their recycling program to a minimum and work within their current footprint. For example, in some cases they were able to have two narrow bins (for recycling and waste) in the space formerly occupied by one larger waste-only bin. They increased use of their onsite compacter and upped collection frequency to help maintain flow and keep material back-up to a minimum.

The Power of People and Places

Whether you are a small local hospital, a huge regional system, or something in between, there are lessons from Gundersen that can work for you. Taking the time to really understand the concerns and needs of all your impacted staff and stakeholders, and making sure your plans account for the realities of your physical space will go a long way to building goodwill and successful outcomes.


To learn more, feel free to reach out to a member of the Gundersen Environmental Compliance team: Eric Bashaw, Director of Environmental Compliance; Tom Thompson, Sustainability Coordinator; Andy Kragness, Environmental Compliance Tech. See their slides from the event here.