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Sustainability in Veterinary Practices: How to Go Green

Sustainability and environmentalism are an increasingly prominent concern around the world. The effects of climate change are being felt more strongly than ever, and it feels like every year, there's a new milestone of damage or a new point of no return. More and more people want to do their part, whether that means investing in recycling, voting for clean energy, or just making sure the businesses they rely on are themselves as sustainable as possible.

Veterinary care providers are no exception to this. Maybe you, in your compassion for animals, want to do everything you can in your position of limited power to make the world a better place. Maybe you know your clients feel that way and want to provide more sustainable service for their peace of mind. While it's hard to imagine a local vet practice making the kind of impact a multinational corporation could, every little bit helps. And, if nothing else, it can be a viable marketing technique to attract more environmentally-focused clients from your local area.

The question is, what can you do? Truthfully, while there are a lot of different possibilities, which ones you can implement will vary depending on factors, including your available resources, your location, and more. Since no one will be able to implement everything, we've put together as large a list as possible so you can cover as many bases as you can. Let's dig in!

Paper and Consumables

One of the easiest areas to make changes is in the realm of paper. From your back-office work to your reception, paper is a fact of life, but there are many ways you can work to minimize it and make what paper you use more sustainable.

Make print-outs optional. Many facilities are in the habit of printing out hard copies of care instructions, disease summaries, and appointment reports. Most of the time, these end up discarded almost immediately. Instead, consider offering to email the paperwork to your clients or using a veterinary care app like PetsApp, NaVetor, or Covetrus. A digital platform is much more sustainable than paperwork, and it has the added benefit of being persistent; a client can't easily lose the paper and can always log in to re-read any instructions you left with them.

Use recycled or sustainable paper sources when necessary. Chances are there's no way you'll 100% remove paper from your practice, so you can switch to sustainable paper suppliers. Paper quality can vary, and it isn't always a clean, white, bleached appearance, but that often doesn't matter to clients.

Consider a switch to sustainable printers. Your typical inkjet printer consumes a lot of ink, and those ink cartridges are often not easily recyclable. There are, however, a variety of more sustainable printer options, including laser printers and more.

Invest in a good EMR system. An electronic medical records system has many benefits over a more traditional paper system. Reducing paper usage is, of course, part of it. EMRs also offer accessible records, easy integration across service providers and partner care providers, and much more. The transition can be a huge hurdle, but once you've settled into a modern EMR, it can be hugely beneficial.

Supplies and Logistics

A lot of the environmental impact of your practice does not come from your building directly; it comes from your supply lines. It might be more expensive to order a sustainable alternative to a consumable you currently use, but when you minimize shipping and packaging, you come out ahead on the environmental impact.

Order in bulk when possible. Modern supply lines are often designed for "just-in-time" delivery; that is, you never keep an inventory on hand and order what you need, often with predictive analytics to determine how much of what to order and when. Unfortunately, while this reduces storage space and minimizes the risk of expired items, it makes you vulnerable to supply line disruptions (as we see extensively with COVID-19), and it means more shipping, more packaging, and more associated waste. Instead, consider determining how much of any given supply you need and ordering a stock you can maintain with less shipping and logistics involved.

Offer pill bottle recycling. Pharmacies dispense medications in plastic bottles by necessity, and those bottles often end up in landfills. It's a simple matter to offer bottle returns, and you can even develop a points system or some kind of reward to incentivize returning those bottles.

Use paper bags for prescriptions. This is increasingly standard across all pharmacies, but if you don't already use paper packaging for your medications (rather than plastic), switch.

Find alternatives for expired items. In cases where an expiration isn't a danger, anyway. Many consumables, disposables, medications, and other supplies you keep on hand have expiration dates. You may not be able to use them past that date by law, even if you know they're perfectly good. Instead of discarding them, consider working with a charity like VetMedAid to donate those supplies.

Invest in good waste management and recycling. Waste management is a huge part of reducing what ends up in landfills. However, the availability and efficacy of recycling programs vary wildly between locations, so be sure to investigate what's available to you locally. In some cases, you may even be able to sign up with third-party national programs for recycling or repurposing certain kinds of items.

Properly dispose of expired medications. If you can't recycle, repurpose, return, or donate expired medications, make sure you know how they must be disposed of. Unused medication is a huge source of ecotoxicity, so it's important to minimize your impact on the environment through medications.

Energy Efficiency

While the best option as a society is to switch entirely to renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and nuclear, your veterinary practice can't exactly spin up a power plant and push that envelope. You can, however, make changes to save on energy usage.

Switch to LED bulbs. Many medical facilities, including veterinary facilities, often use fluorescent lighting; switching to LEDs can save an immense amount of power, emit less heat and none of the incessant buzzing drones of fluorescent light, and last longer. You may even be able to switch to smart bulbs that can be programmed or dynamically controlled for different situations, as well.

Use power-saving devices. For example, motion sensors for lights in lower-traffic areas can help save power because you aren't lighting up the supply closet or the restrooms 24/7. Smart bulbs can also be programmed to turn off overnight.

Switch to more energy-efficient appliances. Many veterinary practices have a range of appliances throughout their facilities, including coolers, freezers, dryers, washers, and more. While we're not saying to go out and replace them all immediately, when it comes time to replace or upgrade an appliance, look for Energy Star-certified efficient replacements.

Evaluate and improve your practice climate control. There are many ways that a building can be improved to make better use of energy when it comes to HVAC. Tinting windows, improving insulation, sealing drafts, improving ventilation; you want your practice to be comfortable for your staff, your clients, and the animals in your care, but if you can minimize the energy costs necessary to keep it that way, do so.

Switch to rechargeable batteries where possible. Rechargeable batteries are much, much better for the environment than batteries that are used once and discarded. The chemicals in batteries can be hazardous to the environment; they're a wasteful consumable product, and while recharging batteries is more of a power cost than buying new ones, the materials cost more than they make up for it.

If possible, consider switching energy suppliers. Depending on the availability of utilities in your area, the competition, and the sourcing, you may be able to switch suppliers from whatever is predetermined for you to one that is guaranteed to be renewable. As with some other changes on this list, this isn't guaranteed to be available – and your current supplier might even be the best option – but it can be worth looking into.

Water Usage

Another area where many vets can improve is water consumption and usage.

Low-flow appliances can help a lot. These are often no less effective than full-flow faucets and toilets but reduce water consumption dramatically. Just make sure whatever appliance you buy doesn't interfere with basic sanitation.

Office water consumption for both humans and animals can be evaluated as well. Tap water is almost always better than bottled water (unless you're in a situation where well or municipal water is contaminated), and you can invest in a filter system rather than discourage water consumption.

Relatedly, switch to eco-friendly cleaning products. Whether this is the chemicals used to clean your floors and counters, your hand sanitizing chemicals, or the cleaning products used elsewhere in your practice, there are often eco-friendly versions available.

Reduce and adjust landscaping. While this isn't applicable to every practice, if you have landscaping you need to care for, seek out native, drought-resistant, and low-care plant options. The less you need to have a sprinkler system running to keep the landscaping going, the better off you are.

Practice and Care

In the course of veterinary care operations, there are many small optimizations you can make that have a surprisingly large impact.

Switch to low-flow anesthesia. Many anesthetic gasses are, unfortunately, also very potent greenhouse gasses. Switch away from Nitrous Oxide and switch to a low-flow system to reduce the amount of gas used in any given procedure. Note that this might require some training or an investment in new systems, but it's worthwhile in the long run.

Look for eco-friendly medication alternatives. While many medications are proprietary and only available from a single manufacturer, others have more generics available. Switching to generics isn't only a cost-reduction option; you may be able to find suppliers who invest in eco-friendly packaging, better logistics, and even greener manufacturing processes. This is very much a case-by-case decision for each medication, however.

Switch to reusable scrub hats. In the operating room, scrub hats are a necessity for clean operations. Studies have shown that reusable hats are actually more effective than disposable hats, and laundering reusable hats is more environmentally friendly than purchasing packs of disposable hats across the board. It's a simple, easy, and incredibly beneficial change your practice can make.

Invest in electric vehicles. If your practice does house calls, home visits, travel veterinary services, or animal control, invest in electric service vehicles. This saves on fuel costs and is more environmentally friendly than ICE vehicles. Not all vets have this opportunity or can benefit from this change, but if you can, it might be an excellent decision. You may even be able to take advantage of grants and subsidies to reduce the cost of the initial investment.

Look to the Future

It's not always easy to see a path to a more sustainable and eco-friendly future for your practice. Some of these changes may take a long time to implement, and some are expensive enough that it takes a long time just to save up to implement them. Always keep an eye on the future and the changes you can make to ensure a brighter path forward.

Don't forget to look into local, state-level, and even national programs, grants, charities, and support organizations that can help ease the burden. There are many different programs available to ease the load, smoothing out the transition to a more sustainable practice.

Finally, don't forget to promote the changes you make. While it's certainly good to make the changes whether or not you get public accolades for doing so, promoting making the changes has many benefits, including:

  • Attracting the attention and client patronage of the most eco-focused individuals in your community.

  • Promoting your brand and name in a positive light.

  • Leading the charge and putting pressure on other local businesses to make similar changes.

The more you emphasize a cleaner, greener practice, the more others can follow suit, knowing it's not just possible but has already been done.

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