The Impact of the COVID Pandemic on Earth Day
A Conversation with NYC Healthcare Sustainability Managers
In thinking about what Gotham 360 would do to celebrate Earth Day this year we were reminded of how much has changed since last Earth Day, and how so much is still so different in regards to how we hold events and connect with one another. Throughout the last year, the pandemic has brought to light the overlap between environmental justice communities and the communities and populations hit hardest by the pandemic. We thought it only fitting to check in with some of our healthcare clients to hear their perspective on sustainability programming in hospitals, and how that has or hasn’t changed in the face of the pandemic.
Gotham 360’s Jeff and Sarah got on the phone with Jenna Agins, Energy & Sustainability Manager at NYU Langone Health, and Grace Whitney, Energy & Sustainability Manager at Montefiore Medical Center. The contents of our interviews with them have been condensed below.
What does Earth Day mean to your hospital?
Jenna Agins: It goes without saying that we should treat every day as Earth Day, but at NYU Langone Health we use Earth Day and Earth Month to celebrate our accomplishments in sustainability and turn staff attention to sustainability and environmental issues. Taking this time to celebrate our successes helps keep people motivated over the course of the year. It also gives us a chance to reflect on our position in the healthcare and global community, and on the connections between healthy patients and a healthy planet.
Grace Whitney: Sustainability is incredibly important to Montefiore Health System, and we take our relationship with our surrounding communities very seriously. Earth Day gives us an opportunity to share and celebrate our sustainability initiatives both internally and externally. It’s a chance to highlight the intersection of healthcare and sustainability, and make that connection to the general population. People noticed that the environment bounced back while pandemic lockdowns were in place, which sparked increased questions from our staff regarding what we’re doing about sustainability.
What does your Earth Day programming look like, and how has that changed in the last year because of COVID?
JA: While we usually plan a big Earth Day fair in person, this year we’ve moved to virtual events. We are most excited to be having a publicly available virtual launch event for a database compiling studies from NYU Langone Health and NYU researchers that are related to healthcare and sustainability. This includes topics like air pollution, food access, chemical reduction, and other links between human health impacts and the environment. This project was led by an NYU student ambassador. The event will also feature Gary Cohen, from Healthcare Without Harm.
GW: We usually have an Earth Day celebration in our gardens that is open to all. My department sets up a table with educational materials, and we invite outside vendors to educate as well. We have music, games, giveaways – once we had free “Nicecream”, which is vegan ice cream. Unfortunately, due to COVID safety guidelines we are still unable to hold this event for our community. This year we will have an educational table for our staff, and will continue sharing information about our sustainability initiatives through Yammer, our internal newsletter platform.
Have you noticed any major shifts or setbacks in sustainability efforts over the last year?
JA: Not exactly. Resiliency, an important part of sustainability, is a huge focus for the organization – it’s embedded in our buildings, systems and processes. Thanks to this institutional focus, we were better able to pivot and respond quickly to new COVID needs. We were able to meet the challenges of the pandemic without changing the organization’s core values or the importance of the things we were committed to prior to the pandemic.
GW: Of course there was a change in focus for the hospital, the sole focus becoming responding to COVID, but there was no change to our overall sustainability strategy. If anything, we can take advantage of the heightened awareness of sustainability and clear example of human activity having a negative impact on the environment when we saw the environment bounce back in spring/summer 2020. This bolsters the argument that Montefiore should continue down our current path of implementing sustainability initiatives.
Did you notice an increase in MSW (Municipal Solid Waste) or RMW (Regulated Medical Waste) due to increased PPE and COVID safety precautions?
JA: We also didn’t see much of a difference in our waste metrics for 2020. Staff focused on proper sorting for PPE, and our EHS (Environmental health and Safety) Department was very good with ongoing training as guidelines and protocols shifted.
GW: There was not as much of an impact here as we expected. It could be that our waste numbers were offset by the suspension of elective surgeries and procedures that produce a lot of waste. The existence of a robust waste and recycling program also helped maintain our waste stream mix.
What would you say is your biggest lesson learned over the past year regarding Energy and Sustainability Program management?
JA: This was not just learned last year – but having a really well trained, highly technical staff is a key component to the success of any sustainability and in particular, energy program. That same staff was able to step up and make the changes that were required throughout the pandemic. These are the same people that are keeping energy efficiency in mind when decisions are made.
GW: The importance of adaptability. What has helped us has been being flexible with timelines and shifts in priority in the face of heightened uncertainty.
What would you like to see for your Sustainability team in the next 5 years?
JA: We just joined the US Healthcare Climate Counsel last year, so I’d like to continue and increase our involvement with them and keep working towards a low carbon and sustainable healthcare future. I’d also like to grow the team to further the scope of the programs across our growing portfolio of buildings.
GW: I’d like our team to grow into a fully fledged Sustainability Department that’s more imbedded throughout all levels of the organization.
Finally, what is one sustainable action you practice in your daily (personal) life? This can be something you’ve always done, or something new during the pandemic.
JA: I try to encourage people in my life to be more sustainable by demonstrating those things in my own everyday activities, like reducing waste by using reusable products, and eating less meat.
GW: Like most, my vehicle travel decreased a lot during the last year. A big part of that is from no longer traveling to different campuses for various meetings, which I hope will continue as we work on getting back to our “new normal”.
Gotham 360 also posed the last question to our NYC team, and this is what they said.
Ashley K: The pandemic has changed all of our lives significantly. I am home much more often, and as a result have more time to cook meals. I have been buying bulk ingredients at the grocery store instead of choosing takeout, which drastically reduces my plastic waste. Additionally, I am now more cognizant of my utility bills and have been making more of an effort to unplug ‘vampire’ loads when I am not using them, especially if I leave my apartment for longer periods of time.
Eve M: During the pandemic I started composting. I have a compost pile in my backyard where I throw food scraps instead of putting them in the garbage.
Jeff H: When moving into an apartment I am always quick to try and reduce unnecessary energy consumption. This usually involved upgrading lighting to LED and installing some kind of smart thermostat. Both actions help to lower utility bills which is something that has been highlighted this year due to the amount of time we’ve all spent in our homes/apartments.
Brendan B: At home we’ve started collecting rainwater to support our vegetable garden, and converted from a two-car household to sharing a single car.
Sarah G: I positioned my at-home workspace to take advantage of natural light, and have continued to participate in my neighborhood’s CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program.