Dr Phil Hammond, broadcaster and sessional GP in Bristol

The NHS is going green but is it cost effective?

Have you come across the NHS Sustainable Development Unit (NHS SDU)? Neither had I, until I heard a passionate speech from its director, Dr David Pencheon. The NHS SDU only came into existence in April 2008, and consists of just seven people based in Cambridge, whose collective aim is to ensure the NHS (in England, at least) does its bit for climate change. Dr Pencheon is a former public health specialist who pulls no punches when articulating the scale of the challenge: ‘The NHS is responsible for over 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum … the largest public sector contributor to climate change’.1

Fighting talk, but are you listening? Sustainability has never been top of the agenda at any meeting I’ve been to, but Pencheon says the response of the NHS has been overwhelmingly positive. He believes that the challenge is to make it a core issue in terms of saving money and delivering key NHS objectives rather than a side issue.

To get me on board, he’s even sent me some examples of how the NHS is helping to save the planet. For example, Nottingham University Hospital turns its clinical waste into bricks and pipes, using rotoclaves and moulding. The proximity of the plant to the hospital saves 50,000 road miles per year, and the rotoclave (an ingeniously rotating autoclave) avoids the pollution that would come from incineration. Who knows, your next house could be built from clinical waste.2

Then there’s the noble effort of four London hospitals to increase the proportion of local and organic food that they use. Ealing General, Lambeth Hospital, St. George’s, and the Royal Brompton work with the Soil Association to provide better quality food with fewer food miles. What’s the point of eating a tomato that’s travelled twice around the globe when they’re growing next door?4

Let’s not forget wind power—Antrim Area Hospital in Northern Ireland is saving £90,000 a year in energy costs from its wind turbine. For the Top Gear fans, it’s a 40-metre high 660 kW Vestas V47 turbine, and the largest at any hospital in the UK. It’s been operational since 7th February 2005, generating 1.2 million units of electricity a year. Apparently even in low wind conditions the turbine is cost effective, and although it cost £497,000, 80% of this figure was from a Government grant.5

And finally, let’s hear it for Plowright GP Surgery in Norfolk, which for a building of its size has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world (less than a third of the mandatory target from the Department of Health). The secret? There’s no fancy technology, it’s just very well designed and built.1

My guess is that sustainability will only really take off across the NHS if it saves us money, and at today’s energy prices, there’s every chance it will. Especially if you qualify for a Government grant. So if you’re planning a move or an upgrade next year, check out the NHS SDU website (www.sdu.nhs.uk). There’s gold in that tree hugging business … .

  1. NHS Sustainable Development Unit. Saving carbon, improving health: A draft carbon reduction strategy for the NHS in England—a consultation document. NHS SDU, 2008.
  2. www.hcwh-newsletter.ecn.cz/article.shtml?x=2122234
  3. www.wen.org.uk/NappyPartnerships/Nappypartnerships_IOM.htm
  4. www.sustainweb.org/page.php?id=97
  5. www.sd-commission.org.uk/publications.php?id=429G

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