When I first started working in general practice after graduating I realised how detrimental the impact of providing veterinary care is to the environment. The amount of waste generated, the harmful chemicals used and the vast amount of energy consumed for day-to-day running of a practice was disconcerting. As a profession known for our compassion of living creatures and the natural world, I felt like this was counterintuitive - surely veterinary work and environmental sustainability should go hand in hand? Achieving carbon neutrality and zero waste production as a veterinary practice will certainly be challenging, but with these goals in mind I began thinking about what steps we should be taking to move in the right direction.
Together, as a team of green-minded individuals, we set about becoming more environmentally sustainable as a practice. First we implemented easy wins; simple changes in behaviour that cost nothing but reduce our energy consumption. Energy saving mode is programmed on the printers and computers, the washing machine is only run if there is a full load, lights and computer monitors are routinely turned off when not in use and washing is hung on the line rather than tumble dried. Whenever a light needs replacing, we swap it for an LED bulb which is up to 75% more energy efficient and has a much longer lifespan. I'd argue that replacing traditional bulbs with LED bulbs is one of the most simple yet effective eco-friendly habits you can adopt both at home and at work!
Keen to recycle as much of our non-hazardous waste as possible, we sought quotes from waste disposal services to find out that recycling collection was just as expensive as general waste collection which may prove too expensive for small businesses like ours to invest in. At present our cardboard and paper waste is collected by the council, however we collect mixed recycling for my boss to dispose of at home in her domestic wheelie bins. We also signed up to become a collection point for the Terracycle pet packaging recycling scheme; they collect and reuse “non-recyclable” waste that would otherwise end up in landfills or being incinerated.
Clinical waste is one of the biggest challenges to reducing total waste as, by law, it has to be incinerated and cannot be recycled. We have tried to reduce the amount we generate by using re-useable scrub caps, gowns and drapes. A paper has recently been published concluding that there is no disadvantage to using reusable cloth drapes from an infection control standpoint, which was our main concern. Another change we made was switching to smaller clinical waste bins so people have to think twice about what is genuinely clinical waste and what can be recycled. Cardboard-based clinical waste bins (such as the Bio-bin) are a good alternative to the usual plastic bins but we could not justify the additional cost in a small practice, so as a compromise we re-fill the plastic bins, and only dispose of the bin bags once full.
To reduce our water consumption, we have switched to Sterillium to achieve surgical sterility (this also reduces waste, as there is no need for packaged sterile scrub brushes and towels). Another way we minimise our water consumption is by only running the washing machine on a full load.
In an effort to reduce the paper used at the practice, the anaesthetic monitoring chart is printed on the back of the patient admit form, we always print double sided, and we look at urine results and blood results on the computer rather than printing them out. We make sure any paper we buy is PEFC certified so that we know any paper being used is ethically sourced. We also encourage clients to receive reminders by email or text rather than by post to further reduce the waste produced as well as saving on postage.
When we have lunchtime CPD, we request that the visiting companies provide lunches that are plastic free and ideally locally sourced. This often results in us receiving delicious salads and sandwiches from the local delicatessen in paper boxes…perhaps one of the best perks of our eco-friendly efforts!! We also have a large stash of re-useable cups with the practice logo on for staff and visitors to use rather than disposable cups.
Veterinary practices have a lot of power through procurement (obtaining equipment and supplies), and we decided to put this to good use to drive change in the market. We support green-minded suppliers and have swapped many consumables with eco-friendly alternatives; syringes made from renewable energy, biodegradable examination gloves and recyclable autoclave bags, amongst others. We now also stock pet toys specifically made from materials other than plastic, it's amazing what you can find out there when you look for it!
We had a discussion about further energy reduction measures such as replacing the old boiler for a more efficient model (as recommended by an energy consultant), switching to a green energy supplier or generating our own electricity on-site through renewable technology. Being a small independent practice these are unfortunately out of our budget for now, but if funds allowed in the future, this would definitely be the next step. It is likely that these changes would even make a return on our investment through reduced energy bills in the future. We did however invest in applying Solar Sentry window films to the windows in the waiting room and consult rooms, which reduce heat loss in winter and prevent excessive heat gain (and glare) in summer, thereby reducing both our heating and air-conditioning bills.
My practice is by no means perfect, and there is a lot more we could improve on, but we are trying to do everything within our means at this point in time. Our aim was to do our bit for the planet to help prevent further global warming. Clients really appreciate our eco-friendly business ethos and we have cut our energy bills too! Becoming environmentally sustainable certainly has many perks, and the eco-conscious mind-set is more contagious than the flu. I wanted to write this blog to inspire other practices to embark on eco-friendly ventures as I believe that every practice has scope to reduce its environmental impact, whatever the size or budget. It would be incredible to see the veterinary profession leading the way in taking responsibility for our environmental impact, and setting an example for other industries to follow!
I am forever on the lookout for new ideas for how we could further develop our sustainability efforts, so please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any suggestions, I would be very grateful.