Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, it’s replaced by red and orange light waves that stimulate melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”
These technologies may help more animals and plants survive climate change
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases by land and by sea - and how scientists are working on solutions.
Along the west coast of South Florida and the Keys, Florida Bay is a nursery for young Caribbean spiny lobsters, a favorite local delicacy. Growing up in small shallow basins, they are especially vulnerable to warmer, more saline water. Climate change has brought tidal floods, bleached coral reefs and toxic algal blooms to the state, and since the 1990s, the population of the Caribbean spiny lobster has dropped some 20 percent, diminishing an important food for snapper, grouper, and herons, as well as people. In 1999, marine ecologist Donald Behringer discovered the first known virus among lobsters, Panulirus argus virus—about a quarter of juveniles die from it before they mature.
“When the water is warm PaV1 progresses much more quickly,” says Behringer, who is based at the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Caribbean spiny lobsters are only one example of many species that are struggling in the era of climate change, both at sea and on land. As the oceans heat up, absorbing greenhouse gases and growing more acidic, marine diseases are emerging at an accelerated rate. Marine creatures are migrating to new places, and carrying pathogens with them. The latest grim report in the journal Science, states that if global warming continues at the current rate, the extinction of marine species will rival the Permian–Triassic extinction, sometimes called the “Great Dying,” when volcanoes poisoned the air and wiped out as much as 90 percent of all marine life 252 million years ago.
Similarly, on land, climate change has exposed wildlife, trees and crops to new or more virulent pathogens. Warming environments allow fungi, bacteria, viruses and infectious worms to proliferate in new species and locations or become more virulent. One paper modeling records of nearly 1,400 wildlife species projects that parasites will double by 2070 in the far north and in high-altitude places. Right now, we are seeing the effects most clearly on the fringes—along the coasts, up north and high in the mountains—but as the climate continues changing, the ripples will reach everywhere.
Few species are spared
On the Hawaiian Islands, mosquitoes are killing more songbirds. The dusky gray akikiki of Kauai and the chartreuse-yellow kiwikiu of Maui could vanish in two years, under assault from mosquitoes bearing avian malaria, according to a University of Hawaiʻi 2022 report. Previously, the birds could escape infection by roosting high in the cold mountains, where the pests couldn’t thrive, but climate change expanded the range of the mosquito and narrowed theirs.
Likewise, as more midge larvae survive over warm winters and breed better during drier summers, they bite more white-tailed deer, spreading often-fatal epizootic hemorrhagic disease. Especially in northern regions of the globe, climate change brings the threat of midges carrying blue tongue disease, a virus, to sheep and other animals. Tick-borne diseases like encephalitis and Lyme disease may become a greater threat to animals and perhaps humans.
"If you put all your eggs in one basket and then a pest comes a long, then you are more vulnerable to those risks," says Mehroad Ehsani, managing director of the food initiative in Africa for the Rockefeller Foundation. "Research is needed on resilient, climate smart, regenerative agriculture."
In the “thermal mismatch” theory of wildlife disease, cold-adapted species are at greater risk when their habitats warm, and warm-adapted species suffer when their habitats cool. Mammals can adjust their body temperature to adapt to some extent. Amphibians, fish and insects that cannot regulate body temperatures may be at greater risk. Many scientists see amphibians, especially, as canaries in the coalmine, signaling toxicity.
Early melting ice can foster disease. Climate models predict that the spring thaw will come ever-earlier in the lakes of the French Pyrenees, for instance, which traditionally stayed frozen for up to half the year. The tadpoles of the midwife toad live under the ice, where they are often infected with amphibian chytrid fungus. When a seven-year study tracked the virus in three species of amphibians in Pyrenees’s Lac Arlet, the research team found that, the earlier the spring thaw arrived, the more infection rates rose in common toads— , while remaining high among the midwife toads. But the team made another sad discovery: with early thaws, the common frog, which was thought to be free of the disease in Europe, also became infected with the fungus and died in large numbers.
Changing habitats affect animal behavior. Normally, spiny lobsters rely on chemical cues to avoid predators and sick lobsters. New conditions may be hampering their ability to “social distance”—which may help PaV1 spread, Behringer’s research suggests. Migration brings other risks. In April 2022, an international team led by scientists at Georgetown University announced the first comprehensive overview, published in the journal Nature, of how wild mammals under pressure from a changing climate may mingle with new populations and species—giving viruses a deadly opportunity to jump between hosts. Droughts, for example, will push animals to congregate at the few places where water remains.
Plants face threats also. At the timberline of the cold, windy, snowy mountains of the U.S. west, whitebark pine forests are facing a double threat, from white pine blister rust, a fungal disease, and multiplying pine beetles. “If we do nothing, we will lose the species,” says Robert Keane, a research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, based in Missoula, Montana. That would be a huge shift, he explains: “It’s a keystone species. There are over 110 animals that depend on it, many insects, and hundreds of plants.” In the past, beetle larvae would take two years to complete their lifecycle, and many died in frost. “With climate change, we're seeing more and more beetles survive, and sometimes the beetle can complete its lifecycle in one year,” he says.
Quintessential crops are under threat too
As some pathogens move north and new ones develop, they pose novel threats to the crops humans depend upon. This is already happening to wheat, coffee, bananas and maize.
Breeding against wheat stem rust, a fungus long linked to famine, was a key success in the mid-20th century Green Revolution, which brought higher yields around the world. In 2013, wheat stem rust reemerged in Germany after decades of absence. It ravaged both bread and durum wheat in Sicily in 2016 and has spread as far as England and Ireland. Wheat blast disease, caused by a different fungus, appeared in Bangladesh in 2016, and spread to India, the world’s second largest producer of wheat.
Insects, moths, worms, and coffee leaf rust—a fungus now found in all coffee-growing countries—threaten the livelihoods of millions of people who grow coffee, as well as everybody’s cup of joe. More heat, more intense rain, and higher humidity have allowed coffee leaf rust to cycle more rapidly. It has grown exponentially, overcoming the agricultural chemicals that once kept it under control.
To identify new diseases and fine-tune crops for resistance, scientists are increasingly relying on genomic tools.
Tar spot, a fungus native to Latin America that can cut corn production in half, has emerged in highland areas of Central Mexico and parts of the U.S.. Meanwhile, maize lethal necrosis disease has spread to multiple countries in Africa, notes Mehrdad Ehsani, Managing Director for the Food Initiative in Africa of the Rockefeller Foundation. The Cavendish banana, which most people eat today, was bred to be resistant to the fungus Panama 1. Now a new fungus, Panama 4, has emerged on every continent–including areas of Latin America that rely on the Cavendish for their income, reported a recent story in the Guardian. New threats are poised to emerge. Potato growers in the Andes Mountains have been shielded from disease because of colder weather at high altitude, but temperature fluxes and warming weather are expected to make this crop vulnerable to potato blight, found plant pathologist Erica Goss, at the Emerging Pathogens Institute.
Science seeks solutions
To protect food supplies in the era of climate change, scientists are calling for integrated global surveillance systems for crop disease outbreaks. “You can imagine that a new crop variety that is drought-tolerant could be susceptible to a pathogen that previous varieties had some resistance against,” Goss says. “Or a country suffers from a calamitous weather event, has to import seed from another country, and that seed is contaminated with a new pathogen or more virulent strain of an existing pathogen.” Researchers at the John Innes Center in Norwich and Aarhus University in Denmark have established ways to monitor wheat rust, for example.
Better data is essential, for both plants and animals. Historically, models of climate change predicted effects on plant pathogens based on mean temperatures, and scientists tracked plant responses to constant temperatures, explains Goss. “There is a need for more realistic tests of the effects of changing temperatures, particularly changes in daily high and low temperatures on pathogens,” she says.
To identify new diseases and fine-tune crops for resistance, scientists are increasingly relying on genomic tools. Goss suggests factoring the impact of climate change into those tools. Genomic efforts to select soft red winter wheat that is resistant to Fusarium head blight (FHB), a fungus that plagues farmers in the Southeastern U.S., have had early success. But temperature changes introduce a new factor.
A fundamental solution would be to bring back diversification in farming, says Ehsani. Thousands of plant species are edible, yet we rely on a handful. Wild relatives of domesticated crops are a store of possibly useful genes that may confer resistance to disease. The same is true for livestock. “If you put all your eggs in one basket and then a pest comes along, then you are more vulnerable to those risks. Research is needed on resilient, climate smart, regenerative agriculture,” Ehsani says.
Jonathan Sleeman, director of the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, has called for data on wildlife health to be systematically collected and integrated with climate and other variables because more comprehensive data will result in better preventive action. “We have focused on detecting diseases,” he says, but a more holistic strategy would apply human public health concepts to assuring animal wellbeing. (For example, one study asked experts to draw a diagram of relationships of all the factors affecting the health of a particular group of caribou.) We must not take the health of plants and animals for granted, because their vulnerability inevitably affects us too, Sleeman says. “We need to improve the resilience of wildlife populations so they can withstand the impact of climate change.”
Some hospitals are pioneers in ditching plastic, turning green
This is part 2 of a three part series on a new generation of doctors leading the charge to make the health care industry more sustainable - for the benefit of their patients and the planet. Read part 1 here and part 3 here.
After graduating from her studies as an engineer, Nora Stroetzel ticked off the top item on her bucket list and traveled the world for a year. She loved remote places like the Indonesian rain forest she reached only by hiking for several days on foot, mountain villages in the Himalayas, and diving at reefs that were only accessible by local fishing boats.
“But no matter how far from civilization I ventured, one thing was already there: plastic,” Stroetzel says. “Plastic that would stay there for centuries, on 12,000 foot peaks and on beaches several hundred miles from the nearest city.” She saw “wild orangutans that could be lured by rustling plastic and hermit crabs that used plastic lids as dwellings instead of shells.”
While traveling she started volunteering for beach cleanups and helped build a recycling station in Indonesia. But the pivotal moment for her came after she returned to her hometown Kiel in Germany. “At the dentist, they gave me a plastic cup to rinse my mouth. I used it for maybe ten seconds before it was tossed out,” Stroetzel says. “That made me really angry.”
She decided to research alternatives for plastic in the medical sector and learned that cups could be reused and easily disinfected. All dentists routinely disinfect their tools anyway and, Stroetzel reasoned, it wouldn’t be too hard to extend that practice to cups.
It's a good example for how often plastic is used unnecessarily in medical practice, she says. The health care sector is the fifth biggest source of pollution and trash in industrialized countries. In the U.S., hospitals generate an estimated 6,000 tons of waste per day, including an average of 400 grams of plastic per patient per day, and this sector produces 8.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide.
“Sustainable alternatives exist,” Stroetzel says, “but you have to painstakingly look for them; they are often not offered by the big manufacturers, and all of this takes way too much time [that] medical staff simply does not have during their hectic days.”
When Stroetzel spoke with medical staff in Germany, she found they were often frustrated by all of this waste, especially as they took care to avoid single-use plastic at home. Doctors in other countries share this frustration. In a recent poll, nine out of ten doctors in Germany said they’re aware of the urgency to find sustainable solutions in the health industry but don’t know how to achieve this goal.
After a year of researching more sustainable alternatives, Stroetzel founded a social enterprise startup called POP, short for Practice Without Plastic, together with IT expert Nicolai Niethe, to offer well-researched solutions. “Sustainable alternatives exist,” she says, “but you have to painstakingly look for them; they are often not offered by the big manufacturers, and all of this takes way too much time [that] medical staff simply does not have during their hectic days.”
In addition to reusable dentist cups, other good options for the heath care sector include washable N95 face masks and gloves made from nitrile, which waste less water and energy in their production. But Stroetzel admits that truly making a medical facility more sustainable is a complex task. “This includes negotiating with manufacturers who often package medical materials in double and triple layers of extra plastic.”
While initiatives such as Stroetzel’s provide much needed information, other experts reason that a wholesale rethinking of healthcare is needed. Voluntary action won’t be enough, and government should set the right example. Kari Nadeau, a Stanford physician who has spent 30 years researching the effects of environmental pollution on the immune system, and Kenneth Kizer, the former undersecretary for health in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, wrote in JAMA last year that the medical industry and federal agencies that provide health care should be required to measure and make public their carbon footprints. “Government health systems do not disclose these data (and very rarely do private health care organizations), unlike more than 90% of the Standard & Poor’s top 500 companies and many nongovernment entities," they explained. "This could constitute a substantial step toward better equipping health professionals to confront climate change and other planetary health problems.”
Compared to the U.K., the U.S. healthcare industry lags behind in terms of measuring and managing its carbon footprint, and hospitals are the second highest energy user of any sector in the U.S.
Kizer and Nadeau look to the U.K. National Health Service (NHS), which created a Sustainable Development Unit in 2008 and began that year to conduct assessments of the NHS’s carbon footprint. The NHS also identified its biggest culprits: Of the 2019 footprint, with emissions totaling 25 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent, 62 percent came from the supply chain, 24 percent from the direct delivery of care, 10 percent from staff commute and patient and visitor travel, and 4 percent from private health and care services commissioned by the NHS. From 1990 to 2019, the NHS has reduced its emission of carbon dioxide equivalents by 26 percent, mostly due to the switch to renewable energy for heat and power. Meanwhile, the NHS has encouraged health clinics in the U.K. to install wind generators or photovoltaics that convert light to electricity -- relatively quick ways to decarbonize buildings in the health sector.
Compared to the U.K., the U.S. healthcare industry lags behind in terms of measuring and managing its carbon footprint, and hospitals are the second highest energy user of any sector in the U.S. “We are already seeing patients with symptoms from climate change, such as worsened respiratory symptoms from increased wildfires and poor air quality in California,” write Thomas B. Newman, a pediatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, and UCSF clinical research coordinator Daisy Valdivieso. “Because of the enormous health threat posed by climate change, health professionals should mobilize support for climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.” They believe “the most direct place to start is to approach the low-lying fruit: reducing healthcare waste and overuse.”
In addition to resulting in waste, the plastic in hospitals ultimately harms patients, who may be even more vulnerable to the effects due to their health conditions. Microplastics have been detected in most humans, and on average, a human ingests five grams of microplastic per week. Newman and Valdivieso refer to the American Board of Internal Medicine's Choosing Wisely program as one of many initiatives that identify and publicize options for “safely doing less” as a strategy to reduce unnecessary healthcare practices, and in turn, reduce cost, resource use, and ultimately reduce medical harm.
A few U.S. clinics are pioneers in transitioning to clean energy sources. In Wisconsin, the nonprofit Gundersen Health network became the first hospital to cut its reliance on petroleum by switching to locally produced green energy in 2015, and it saved $1.2 million per year in the process. Kaiser Permanente eliminated its 800,000 ton carbon footprint through energy efficiency and purchasing carbon offsets, reaching a balance between carbon emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere in 2020, the first U.S. health system to do so.
Cleveland Clinic has pledged to join Kaiser in becoming carbon neutral by 2027. Realizing that 80 percent of its 2008 carbon emissions came from electricity consumption, the Clinic started switching to renewable energy and installing solar panels, and it has invested in researching recyclable products and packaging. The Clinic’s sustainability report outlines several strategies for producing less waste, such as reusing cases for sterilizing instruments, cutting back on materials that can’t be recycled, and putting pressure on vendors to reduce product packaging.
The Charité Berlin, Europe’s biggest university hospital, has also announced its goal to become carbon neutral. Its sustainability managers have begun to identify the biggest carbon culprits in its operations. “We’ve already reduced CO2 emissions by 21 percent since 2016,” says Simon Batt-Nauerz, the director of infrastructure and sustainability.
The hospital still emits 100,000 tons of CO2 every year, as much as a city with 10,000 residents, but it’s making progress through ride share and bicycle programs for its staff of 20,000 employees, who can get their bikes repaired for free in one of the Charité-operated bike workshops. Another program targets doctors’ and nurses’ scrubs, which cause more than 200 tons of CO2 during manufacturing and cleaning. The staff is currently testing lighter, more sustainable scrubs made from recycled cellulose that is grown regionally and requires 80 percent less land use and 30 percent less water.
The Charité hospital in Berlin still emits 100,000 tons of CO2 every year, but it’s making progress through ride share and bicycle programs for its staff of 20,000 employees.
Wiebke Peitz | Specific to Charité
Anesthesiologist Susanne Koch spearheads sustainability efforts in anesthesiology at the Charité. She says that up to a third of hospital waste comes from surgery rooms. To reduce medical waste, she recommends what she calls the 5 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rethink, Research. “In medicine, people don’t question the use of plastic because of safety concerns,” she says. “Nobody wants to be sued because something is reused. However, it is possible to reduce plastic and other materials safely.”
For instance, she says, typical surgery kits are single-use and contain more supplies than are actually needed, and the entire kit is routinely thrown out after the surgery. “Up to 20 percent of materials in a surgery room aren’t used but will be discarded,” Koch says. One solution could be smaller kits, she explains, and another would be to recycle the plastic. Another example is breathing tubes. “When they became scarce during the pandemic, studies showed that they can be used seven days instead of 24 hours without increased bacteria load when we change the filters regularly,” Koch says, and wonders, “What else can we reuse?”
In the Netherlands, TU Delft researchers Tim Horeman and Bart van Straten designed a method to melt down the blue polypropylene wrapping paper that keeps medical instruments sterile, so that the material can be turned it into new medical devices. Currently, more than a million kilos of the blue paper are used in Dutch hospitals every year. A growing number of Dutch hospitals are adopting this approach.
Another common practice that’s ripe for improvement is the use of a certain plastic, called PVC, in hospital equipment such as blood bags, tubes and masks. Because of its toxic components, PVC is almost never recycled in the U.S., but University of Michigan researchers Danielle Fagnani and Anne McNeil have discovered a chemical process that can break it down into material that could be incorporated back into production. This could be a step toward a circular economy “that accounts for resource inputs and emissions throughout a product’s life cycle, including extraction of raw materials, manufacturing, transport, use and reuse, and disposal,” as medical experts have proposed. “It’s a failure of humanity to have created these amazing materials which have improved our lives in many ways, but at the same time to be so shortsighted that we didn’t think about what to do with the waste,” McNeil said in a press release.
Susanne Koch puts it more succinctly: “What’s the point if we save patients while killing the planet?”