NHS Confed, health inequality and air pollution

Forging a sustainable future: how NHS trusts are going green

One of the greatest threats facing the NHS, healthcare and more importantly the world at large is climate change. Increased emissions, pollution and ecological destruction continue to devastate the environment and by proxy the health and wellbeing of those within it.

In this article, we will be exploring the green plans of three NHS trusts, examining how different regions are working to achieve a greener, more sustainable future. We will be focusing on West London NHS Trust (WLNHT), Leeds and York Partnership Foundation Trust (LYPFT) and the Royal Devon University Healthcare NHS Trust.

The role of leadership and workforce

An emerging theme from each green plan is the importance of staff engagement when it comes to driving meaningful change. West London lists ‘people’ as one of its seven main areas of action, stating that an engagement in sustainable initiatives across the workforce is key in order to embed sustainability into the trust’s processes. They are actively making sustainable procurement decisions and cultivating a culture of sustainability within the trust to ensure staff, patients and volunteers feel empowered to deliver and receive sustainable healthcare.

Similarly, Leeds and York describe their vision to “ensure all staff feel passionately about helping the trust become carbon neutral” and that “everyone feels involved and valued in the process.” To do this, the trust will introduce carbon literacy training programmes to ensure all staff are well versed in the trust’s green objectives. The creation of annual awards will be set up to further incentivise staff and show recognition of individual and departmental efforts to decarbonise.

Royal Devon names ‘staff engagement’ as the second target in their green roadmap, stating: “The role of our leaders in modelling and demonstrating a clear commitment to sustainability and Net Zero will be crucial”. Whilst their Sustainability Steering Group will have coordination and assurance roles, “it will be the actions of our thousands of staff members that will make the plan real.” Similarly to Leeds, the trust will implement online sustainability training for staff to ensure they are fully informed of the trust’s goals and objectives.

What does ‘green’ look like?

It is important to consider the practicalities of sustainability, and how a ‘green approach’ might manifest itself in day-to-day situations across the NHS trusts. Tangible examples of sustainable change can include waste management, exploring alternative energy and transportation.

For example, West London NHS Trust have created 28 vehicle charging points across the trust and utilise three electric vehicles day-to-day which produce zero carbon emissions. In 2020, the trust moved to a greener supply for their electricity, which means they now receive renewable energy from solar power, wind farms and hydro technology. This has facilitated the reduction in carbon emissions by approximately 2,700 tonnes. The trust have implemented recycling waste streams which negates the use of landfills, by using a bio-digester to reduce waste down to a fluid. The fluid can then be expelled into a draining system without causing harm to the environment.

Meanwhile, Leeds and York have placed greater focus on recycling and targeting waste at the source. They have increased their recycling efforts and plan to implement reusable items in an effort to reduce unnecessary waste and packaging. They currently have solar arrays in place which they want to expand upon, including battery storage and new technology to reduce their carbon footprint. Ensuring buildings and facilities are well-insulated, using LED lighting where appropriate and having natural ventilation will all feature significantly in their long term sustainability plans.

Royal Devon will also incentivise staff to use electric vehicles and increase access to environmentally friendly transport options. The trust, like York and Leeds, will use appropriate waste disposal routes to reduce carbon emissions and cease use of single use plastics as far as clinically practicable. Royal Devon has also implemented the digital patient record system MyCare, which has massively contributed to their ongoing reduction of paper services. They are actively encouraging staff and patients to make eco-friendly lifestyle choices through their promotion of plant-based meals and the Go Greener recycling scheme. Additionally, from a procurement perspective, they are profiling suppliers based on their progress in reducing CO2 emissions.

Digital pathways

We have briefly touched on some of the environmental benefits technology can provide for the NHS – for example, Royal Devon’s implementation of MyCare mitigating the reliance on paper, thus reducing waste throughout the system. There is a prominent theme in each of the trusts’ plans, which suggests the drive towards digital solutions is steadily increasing.

For example, West London expresses a desire for “technology enabled smarter working” and – like Royal Devon – digitising health and care records across the organisation. Going forward, the trust will look to increase investment opportunities in technology and infrastructure in order to meet the NHS Net Zero target. This will also enable wide collaboration between sectors such as local authority, voluntary and private organisations. The plan states that a “huge investment has been made into IT as part of the digital transformation to support agile working”, referring to the increased flexibility for staff to work from home where possible.

Hybrid working is championed by all three trusts. Leeds and York highlight the environmental benefits of working from home such as reduced emissions, less demand for fuel and decreased energy usage. They go on to discuss the concept of ‘Green IT’, saying: “IT has made a significant impact on our ability to work from anywhere, meet with colleagues and service users through various media, and create new ways of working. Development of our IT credentials will form part of this plan […] it will also consider the impact of data storage, IT equipment and recycling and a reduction in carbon emitted from data centres.”

Growing together

As we are exploring the similarities of each plan, it is important to highlight the role collaboration plays in achieving a greener organisation. A multi-faceted approach is necessary in order to embed long term, systemic change.

From a corporate perspective, West London describes the need to influence supply chains and external service providers to support them with environmentally friendly products and services. They are also working in collaboration with a car leasing provider to help them promote electric cars to staff and reinforce their ecological benefits.

Leeds and York are focused on networking; setting up cross functional groups of clinical, ICS and specialist staff to discuss their shared efforts to decarbonise the trust. The plan states they wish to create links with third sector organisations working in the green sector, to further strengthen their ambitions.

Similarly, Royal Devon will produce a communications plan which will facilitate stronger links between the trust and the wider communities it serves – engaging with people to encourage change on a fundamental level. This will promote a culture of collaboration and the “joined up thinking” needed to embed sustainability within the trust and beyond.

The way forward

The road to Net Zero is invariably a challenging one; each of the trusts have demonstrated the obstacles they face in the pursuit of a greener, more sustainable future, which varies in size and scale. However, we have established that a consistent and collaborative approach is the key driver of systemic change; shared ambition, insight and above all, action.