Mapping a framework for environmental stewardship

April 12, 2022

There’s vast potential for the health care industry to reduce environmental waste. 

For Katie North, a Registered Nurse at St. Boniface Hospital, this is both a practical matter and an academic pursuit. 

North earned her Master of Nursing (Athabasca University) this past February.  

Along with carbon emissions, and air and water contamination, hospitals add to the climate problem by generating a significant amount of plastic waste. 

By switching to sustainable products, North asserts in her thesis, hospital surgical departments can limit their plastic waste and show how environmental stewardship can be prioritized in the health care industry.  

“Surgical departments produce one third of all hospital waste, but a fraction of a hospital’s footprint and patient intake,” said North.  

“That’s for a lot of reasons including the requirement for sterilized equipment – even those products that can be reused through sterilization require single-use plastic packaging to protect against microbial contamination. Most items in the operating room – like drapes, suction, garbage bags – are single-use and then disposed.”  

The global pandemic only exacerbated the existing issue, said North, a member of the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment. 

“Public health authorities and governments understandably put the well-being of people first. But there was an enormous increase in use of single-use plastics in our sector, with individual packaging and greater adoption of personal protective equipment, such as gloves, gowns, and masks.” 

“Single-use disposable masks are ten times more damaging to the environment than reusable masks.” 

Biodegradable plastics

Biodegradable plastics, North said, are becoming a realistic option to replace harmful products, without compromising the high quality necessary in surgical areas. 

“Products certified ‘bio’ can go into garbage and degrade within two weeks. They would require little change to existing procedures or waste management resources.” 

North traces an abiding interest in environmental issues at least as far back as her teenage years growing up in St. Adolphe. 

“I worked in a personal care home, so I saw the waste.” 

Over her 11 years at St. Boniface Hospital, North has held various charge nurse and clinical resource nurse positions – always with an eye on how to improve processes. 

Recognition for leadership, innovation 

In 2021, she was recognized as the recipient of the Ronald Duhamel Innovation Award. This annual award honouring the late St. Boniface Member of Parliament and Senator Ronald Duhamel supports innovation and leadership in the advancement of health care at St. Boniface Hospital. It includes a cash honorarium. 

“I was thrilled and surprised. And so grateful. The award helped me complete my education.”  

Returning from maternity leave this past January – with her husband, she’s raising a one-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son – North stepped up into a new role at work. 

As Program Team Manager for the Medicine Float Pool, she oversees more than 150 nurses and clinical staff. She’s eager to eager to build a framework that can guide other nursing leaders in reducing their organizations’ ecological impact and increase sustainability. 

In fact, it’s her proposal for the Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing program at the University of Saskatchewan. 

“As a well-established Canadian hospital, St. Boniface can set an example for other health care organizations to follow.”