Nurses and midwives discuss making workplaces sustainable

May 8, 2023
ANMF (Vic Branch) Environmental Health Officer Ros Morgan. Photo: Chris Hopkins/

About 500 members of the Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation (ANMF) attended its 10th Health & Environmental Sustainability Conference on April 27. 

The ANMF continues to lead in environmental sustainability: it is one of only a handful of unions to employ a dedicated environmental health officer, since 2015, and is the only one to organise an annual environment conference. The union also delivers health and sustainability courses, providing practical support and education for nurses and midwives to improve their knowledge and skills to reduce their workplace carbon footprint.

Given that healthcare makes up 7% of national annual carbon emissions, the sector does need to rapidly reduce its footprint.

An ANMF delegate’s resolution in 2012 first proposed a health and environmental conference to help do more to combat climate change. Since then, the annual gathering has grown from 50 to approximately 500–600 attendees annually. It is the largest conference of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.

Nurse presenters showcased innovative ways to reduce waste, energy and products made from plastic. Others demonstrated novel ways to repurpose items used in hospitals and educating staff on behaviour change.

Examples of such initiatives were: moving from plastic to cloth bags for patient belongings; pens made from syringes; using drug vials caps for art; reducing and replacing plastic liners with sustainable alternatives; donating expired stock; rescuing and sending surplus medical supplies to communities overseas; ending the use of polystyrene cups; implementing aluminium recycling programs and using environmentally sustainable alternatives to current personal protective equipment products.

Oliver Hunt, founder of the New Zealand organisation Medsalv, said it strives to reuse single-use items, diverting unnecessary products from landfill and ultimately saving money. Hunt reported that Medsalv had already prevented 1500 kilograms of waste from going to landfill by reusing cardboard boxes.

Keynote speaker Norman Swan, a medically qualified journalist, introduced concepts rarely talked about in health care: he referred to unsustainable, wasteful practices with high carbon intensity being widespread in the health system.

The waste in healthcare has been calculated at 20–40% due to consumption, energy and plastics. Inappropriate care and unnecessary procedures that do not benefit the patient also have a high carbon footprint. “We need to reduce medical interventions that impact on environmental sustainability,” Swan said.

Swan spoke about Victoria’s inadequate response to the pandemic, saying it was due to inferior public health infrastructure. He said he remained sceptical about the state’s ability to respond to future pandemics, saying: “We have a system not changing.”

His main criticism of this was the fact that more resources have gone to maintaining existing hospitals and building new hospitals, after the election, rather than funding primary health care which is where preventative medicine occurs. “More hospital beds will only increase demand,” Swan said.

Sharon Desmond, a nurse and PhD candidate in sustainable healthcare systems, echoed Swan’s view saying: “The budget cuts to community health were very disappointing. We need to revise models of care if we are going to decarbonise health care.”

By reviewing and researching models of care, conference presenters exposed some unnecessary practices and medical interventions with high carbon intensity which contribute to the large amount of waste produced from the health system. Presenters stressed the need to decentralise healthcare and put more resources into community health to optimise disease prevention and lower carbon outputs.

Ros Morgan, ANMF Health and Sustainability Officer, said in her opening address: “People are looking to deliver high-quality care without a big, dirty, footprint”. Swan said: “Caring for patients and caring for the environment doesn’t need to be mutually exclusive.”

Every year the gathering inspires a new layer of nurses, midwives and carers to develop innovative ways to reduce their workplace carbon footprint.

This requires commitment as these projects are usually undertaken in the worker’s own time and against a tide of structural barriers.

Without strong, ongoing organisational support, these initiatives will be difficult to sustain. It is clear that nurses and midwives need more support if they are going to continue to perform these vital additional roles for their workplaces and communities beyond.

[Jackie Kriz is a long-term member of the Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation (Victoria branch).]

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