NYGH’s Bring Your Own Reusable Bag Initiative Aims to Keep Plastic Garment Bags Out Of Landfill

December 21, 2022

Ask NYGH’s Dr. David Smith what first led him to seriously think about environmental sustainability in his day job as a general surgeon and he’ll tell you it was a conversation with his nephew over a beer. 

“My nephew is working in renewable energy as an electrical engineer, so I asked him what he thought of the climate crisis and what the engineers were doing to solve it,” says Dr. Smith, who sits on NYGH’s Environmental Sustainability Committee which is exploring ways to reduce the organization’s environmental footprint, one of NYGH’s Strategic Plan priorities.

“He expressed concern about a general complacency and willingness to defer to others to find solutions and reminded me that the climate crisis is everybody’s problem and responsibility to address.”

Moved by his nephew’s sobering message, Dr. Smith began to think about what he could do to make a difference at NYGH. It was his friend and colleague Dr. Husein Moloo at The Ottawa Hospital who suggested an idea.

“Husein told me opportunities for improvement would become obvious if I viewed our processes through an imaginary pair of green lenses,” continues Dr. Smith,

With that advice Dr. Smith set out to identify where his workplace could become more environmentally responsible and soon found an opportunity for change with the surgery department’s use of plastic garment bags.

“Our team attendant Teresita Sweet (‘Tessie’) told me when patients come in for day surgery we were giving them two plastic bags: one for their shoes and another for their clothing. These bags would then get thrown out and go to the landfill after an hour or so of use, which was wasteful” says Dr. Smith.

Wanting to further study the issue, Dr. Smith reached out to quality improvement teams in and outside of NYGH as well as CASCADES, a national initiative focused on making Canada’s health system more sustainable.

The teams found the day surgery and endoscopy units were giving out and disposing of around 3,000 plastic garment bags every month, which CASCADES calculated as producing carbon emissions equivalent to driving a mid-sized car around the earth 2.5 times.

“We consulted frontline staff and developed a plan to launch a trial where office secretaries would ask patients to bring their own reusable garment bags when calling and emailing about their scheduled procedures,” says Ashmina Damani of NYGH’s Patient Experience and Quality team. “We are also following up with frontline staff to understand their challenges and successes to support them and help sustain this initiative.”

The trial launched in July 2022 and has shown great promise. To date, 52 per cent of scheduled surgery and endoscopy patients are now bringing their own reusable bags, exceeding the 25 per cent target and keeping up to 1,500 plastic bags out of the landfill every month.

“This quality initiative shows how a small change can really make a big difference,” says Linda Jussaume, Program Director of Surgery at NYGH. “Knowing several other units at NYGH use plastic garment bags, we look forward to expanding across the organization and even exploring whether we can take this initiative to other hospitals.”

Rudy Dahdal, Vice President Planning, Redevelopment and Clinical Support and Co-Chair of NYGH’s Environmental Sustainability Committee agrees that this kind of grassroots action is essential to move the needle on the environment. “We’re very fortunate to have strong leadership within our clinical programs, such as Dr. David Smith and the surgical team, to help advance our environmental sustainability strategy.”