Getting the Math Right on Healthcare Plastics Recycling

Getting the Math Right on Healthcare Plastics Recycling

Last week, the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC) was honored to co-host along with Practice Greenhealth a preconference workshop at CleanMed, the premier national environmental conference for leaders in health care sustainability. Entitled Healthcare Plastics Recycling: It’s Not All Rainbows and Unicorns, the workshop set out to take a look at the realities of running these programs, and to learn from three hospital systems who have made significant progress.

Janet Howard, Director of Member Engagement at Practice Greenhealth and Peylina Chu, Executive Director of HPRC welcomed attendees and set context for the event before turning things over to Andy Kragness, Environmental Compliance Lead for Gundersen Health System, Glen Goodsell, Recycling Coordinator, and Angela Dalenberg, Education Coordinator, from Mayo Clinic, and Samantha McKeough, Sustainability Coordinator for HealthPartners to walk us through their programs, highlighting the challenges they have faced and overcome along the way. After these insightful presentations, all attendees (over 100 people!) split into small group breakout sessions to dig further into their individual experiences and to try and learn from one another.

Both the speakers and the breakout sessions focused on three important aspects of a successful and scalable recycling program—stakeholder engagement, material flow, and procurement practices. When these pieces add up, the result is a balanced equation and reduced waste, but as any math student knows, sometimes there is more than one way to find the same solution.

Stakeholder Engagement + Recycling

To start things off, Andy Kragness from Gundersen tackled the topic of employee engagement within the context of a recycling program, outlining some tactics to keep clinical staff engaged and motivated. (Read a full case study on recycling at Gundersen here.) Some tactical communication tips he offered included:

  • Design is your friend: strategically designed and placed posters have been a big part of winning staff buy-in for Gundersen. (Bonus tip: make sure your sign material and ink can survive the cleaning chemicals used in clinical settings!)
  • Pay attention to terminology: The team avoided using the word “comingled” because they found that it was confusing and alienating to staff, and in the end it wasn’t necessary in getting their point across.
  • Encourage big-picture thinking: By reminding staff of the impacts of their recycling choices, Gundersen helped make the issues real for their staff (including the idea that anything not recycled will go to a landfill and that other people will be handling these materials downstream and must be kept safe.)
  • Talk to people in person: Reaching out to people over the phone just didn’t have the same impact, and in-person meetings have the added benefit of allowing you to look together at what is in the supply room and talk specifically about materials that can and can’t be recycled.
  • Waste audits are part of engagement: By being able to see what’s really happening, talk about why, and improve together, Gundersen is able to close the communications loop and help all stakeholders see the successes, challenges, and path forward.

The breakout session discussions focused on employee and stakeholder engagement similarly circled around some common themes: the importance of getting your message right and tailoring it to each of your audiences, of linking your program explicitly to your organizational mission (which has the benefit of already having stakeholder buy-in), and above all, of keeping things simple.

Material Flow + Recycling

Next up, Glen Goodsell and Angela Dalenberg from Mayo Clinic talked about how Mayo handles material collection and processing and works to prevent contamination and infection. (Read a full case study on recycling at Mayo here.)

The Mayo Clinic is unique in that, in a sense, they are their own recycler, processing materials on-site in their own processing plant. Three recycling trucks make 50 dock stops per day, and the resulting materials are stored in the Mayo recycling center until they are sorted by full-time dedicated employees. Right now there are 13 categories of material being collected, sorted, and processed, and the facility has a baler and grinder on-site. The team is then able to sell their materials directly to end users for reuse. One point of pride for the Clinic is that staff turnover in the facility is extremely low, with many employees serving 20 or 30 years (or more!) in their roles, indicating a high level of satisfaction and engagement with their work.

The breakout groups focused on material flow and infection prevention reached a general consensus that this is an area where there are no easy answers. Even with a set-up as highly advanced as Mayo’s, the sheer volume and complexity of materials can be a challenge, as is finding sufficient space. Regarding infection prevention, giving that team a seat at the decision-making table can offer big insights, as is practicing inventory control as much as possible to prevent unnecessary contamination.

Vendor Relationships and Procurement + Recycling

Last but not least, Samantha McKeough discussed vendor relationships and procurement at HealthPartners. (Read a full case study on recycling at HealthPartners here.) One thing that’s made a difference to their program is being located in a state that is strongly pro-recycling and has enacted policies and regulations accordingly. (That’s not to say great results can’t come from less-receptive locations, but more to point to the hyper-local nature of healthcare recycling, and the need for every organization to take their own particular context into account and work within it.)

When looking for partners, HealthPartners places a high value on transparency and strong relationships, and is always on the lookout for new ideas or creative partnership opportunities–for example, HealthPartners was able to donate blue wrap to a church group that made it into bags, which were then auctioned off to support a local charity.

The breakout sessions focused on procurement and vendors talked about the importance of including favorable contract language and terms in agreements from the beginning, and of considering who is enforcing those terms and how—knowing that all parties will be held accountable to the agreement is vital. It’s also important to consider that the view from corporate can be very different from individual facilities (see also the hyper-local nature of recycling) and that what can be seen as a win at one level can force concessions at another, such as with a corporate-mandated vendor. At the end of the day, the best bet is to align with procurement early and often, and keep those lines of communication open!

Making the Pieces Add Up For You

But the conversation doesn’t end here! Please check out for more on each of these sessions, and for information about the projects and tools HPRC is working on to help support hospitals as they work through these challenges. More importantly, get in touch! Part of HPRC’s mission is to enable hospitals to learn from each other and make connections to help everyone recycle more healthcare plastics. We are committed to continuous dialogue and would love to hear YOUR story, even if it’s not all “rainbows and unicorns.”


There will be a webinar rebroadcast of this session in November–watch the PGH website for details! In the meantime, you can see the presentation slides here.