For Earth Day 2009, Rob Lester really had something special to celebrate. Just one year after launching a biodegradable project at Florida’s Ocala Regional Medical Center and West Marion Community Hospital, some 1.5 million Styrofoam cups, bowls and plates and plastic utensils are no longer being sent to the landfill.
That program has proven so successful that the 200-bed medical center and its 70-bed sister facility, located about five miles away, have embarked on recycling efforts that Lester is confident will handle 100 tons of material this year. The medical complex has already cut its overall waste by 11 percent. In the surgical area alone, some 8,000 to 9,000 pounds of plastics, glass, paper and cardboard no longer get dumped into red biohazard waste bags each month. Before the recycling efforts got under way, the hospital generated about 15,000 pounds of biohazard waste monthly. “When we first saw the [reduced] numbers, we thought there had to be a typo,” Lester says. “But it wasn’t an error. It was the fact that they’re now putting all their glass and their plastics and recycling into recycling containers and they’ve reduced the weight dramatically. It has also saved a tremendous amount of money. We estimate we've saved about $1,000 a month just in biohazard waste.”
Lester, director of food and nutrition services for Ocala Health, didn’t set out to become the so-called “green chairman” at the medical complex. His initial goal, after viewing a hospital report showing what was being sent to the Marion County landfill from the food service area, was simply to find an alternative to the millions of pieces of plastic and Styrofoam that the hospital was dumping there.
With the county already having an issue with its fast-filling landfill, Lester realized that something needed to be done.
“When I saw it in real numbers — the millions of pieces that we put in the landfill — coupled with the fact that the plastic is going to be there for 4,000 years, it really affected me,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘This is exactly what we've got to stop . . . We’ve got a problem.’ We’re two big hospitals in town . . . and we’re just shoveling plastics into the landfill.” That prompted him to begin searching for more environmentally friendly products made from materials such as bamboo, bagasse, corn-oil, enviro-foam or potato starch. “There’s a lot of stuff out there,” he says. But, he quickly adds, “It’s not all very good, though.” Not only that, but the cost of those products can be outrageously expensive, he says, which he partially attributes to their production costs.