UCSF Sustainability Stories

By: Ana Toepel, Green Impact, October 2019

UCSF Green Champion Highlight: Laria Pippen, RN, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital

This month we put the spotlight on Laria Pippen, RN, acute care, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, Oakland (CHO). Laria received the 2019 UCSF Sustainability Award in the Health Staff category for her outstanding leadership in sustainability at the hospital. In the words of her nominator, James Naprawa, faculty in emergency medicine at CHO, “Laria is a sustainability machine. Laria has, almost singlehandedly, brought sustainable practices to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, Oakland.”

As just one of her many actions, Laria founded and chairs the hospital’s Green Team. To encourage recognition for the team and to get people excited about it, she created a Green Team identity by developing a logo and branding— BeCHO Green—and now over 200 staff wear the BeCHO Green logo button. The team has spearheaded a sustainability program that has been incredibly effective despite limited resources.

Some of the Green Team’s accomplishments are:

- Sending zero disposable pillows to the landfill (from 53,000 in 2016)

- Eliminating straws from patient food trays, keeping 100-200,000 straws out of landfills and the ocean (2018)

- Replacing paper versions of handbooks for families with online versions, saving over 500,000 sheets of paper (2017)

- Implementing a three-stream waste system—recycling, compost, and garbage—in the cafeteria (2019)

- Encouraging staff to adopt sustainable practices in their lives by holding tabling events during Earth Week and hosting an energizer station during Bike to Work Week (the past two years)

To ensure that positive changes occur and a culture of sustainability exists throughout the hospital, Laria engages staff at all levels and in all departments of CHO. She maintains an ongoing dialog with the executive team about the importance of sustainability for CHO, worked with supply chain to introduce sustainable purchasing, started a conversation about greening the operating room (OR) with OR leadership, and has spoken at Nursing Grand Rounds on the topics of sustainability in medicine and the impact of climate change on health—amongst a host of other efforts. 

Laria shared some thoughts with us about her personal and professional connections to sustainability.

What sparked your interest in sustainability and starting a Green Team at CHO?

As a new nurse at BCH-Oakland, I had a sense of disillusionment: I became a nurse so I could help people become and stay healthy, and yet I was contributing to an unhealthy environment by producing massive amounts of waste in my day to day work. I was taken by the work of MedShare, which gives gently used medical equipment to providers in need and consequently keeps it out of landfills. I was moved to start a waste reduction initiative at my off-site unit and donate unused supplies patients left in their rooms to MedShare, resulting in over 1,500 pounds of waste being diverted from the landfill.

Flash forward several years. I was learning more about the link between climate change and asthma and other health conditions primarily affecting children, and I felt like I was betraying my patients by working in a healthcare agency that continued to produce large amounts of waste. I knew deep in my heart that I wanted to start something bigger and broader than the grassroots efforts at the off-site unit. 

The final motivation was the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. After an evening of crying over any hopes of support for programs to fight climate change, I sat down and wrote a letter to the Executive Director of nursing outlining the numerous ways in which our hospital was contributing vast amounts of carbon and methane via our endless stream of waste. I was fortunate that this particular leader shared my view and desire to make change. 

Why do you think sustainability is important for medicine and for UCSF specifically?

Every day new studies are showing a stronger link between climate change and poor health outcomes. The rates of child asthma have skyrocketed, among other chronic illnesses. Doctors and nurses take a vow to “do no harm.” Sustainability is the way to maintain personal health and the health of our planet. UCSF has a decades-long commitment to medical research and intervention and is centered in one of the most diverse and environmentally progressive cities in the world. It is our responsibility to be leaders in environmental sustainability and to define what is possible through goals like zero waste and carbon neutrality. We may be in a bubble, but we are credible!

Which of your sustainability efforts at UCSF have been the most rewarding and why?

The switch from disposable to reusable pillows, saving 100,000 disposable pillows from going to the landfill every year, definitely tops the list. I used to get almost physically ill every time I discharged a patient, when I begged them to take their pillows home and they didn’t. It meant throwing away sometimes 5-6 pillows at a time. Multiply that times hundreds of patients in a year; that’s a mountain of waste. Not only did this help the environment, it has saved the hospital hundreds of thousands of dollars. The pillows we’re using now have a coating that makes them durable and easy to sanitize before and after each patient use and before slipping on a pillow case. 

The most rewarding, however, has been the culture shift I have witnessed: the hundreds of sustainable intentions staff wrote on earth day, the creative ideas that have come forward, and the collective passion for environmental stewardship that staff demonstrate. I have staff members stop me regularly in the hall to say how much they appreciate what the Green Team is doing. Others tell me about changes they have made to their routines, including biking to work or using reusable utensils at work. One nurse takes used single-use hover matts to her local police department for CERT training, while another takes medical supplies that would’ve been thrown away to Cambodia on medical missions. Knowing that people care and want to make a difference—that is the most rewarding impact of my sustainability efforts.

How do you make sustainability a part of your personal life?

Lol- my kids would roll their eyes! But when I hear them coming down on their friends for using a plastic straw, it makes me proud. Raised in Berkeley, I have been recycling and eating organically for a long time. When I get food to go, though infrequent, I bring my set of bamboo utensils and metal straw. I have hot and cold reusable beverage containers. I am fortunate that in Alameda where I live we compost and recycle municipally. I have the smallest grey bin possible and it rarely even fills entirely. I have reusable produce and shopping bags and make a very strong effort to choose food items packaged in recyclable materials rather than plastic. My life with active kids does lend itself to frequent trips in the car. I used to fill up every week and a half or so, but I couldn’t take it anymore, so last year I bought a used all-electric Toyota RAV4. Mostly, I make a conscious effort to reduce by buying second-hand when possible. But I am realistic and try not to beat myself up when I forget my reusable utensils or bags or buy something wrapped in plastic. Lastly, I try to educate others; for example I chaired the Go Green committee at my son’s elementary school.

What sustainability actions would you encourage the UCSF community to take?

I think the UCSF community is making tremendous strides to combat climate change and is taking responsibility for its footprint. I would like to see BCH-Oakland, as a new member of the UCSF community, become an environmental leader among East Bay hospitals. We must demonstrate our commitment to sustainability to families and children through our actions and via education. One opportunity to demonstrate this commitment is by changing our use of plastic belonging bags. Many cities have banned single use plastic bags, yet we still give them to our patients to carry their belongings when they are discharged. The simple act of changing these to reusable bags sends a message to children and families that we are committed to sustainability and provides a teaching moment for staff. It also takes approximately 100K plastic bags out of the landfill every year (estimate of West and East Bay facility use).