On the grounds of 487-bed New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens, piles of red wiggler worms crawl through garbage, feeding on kitchen waste, shredded paper and sawdust.
These worms are not unwanted pests. They are invited residents at the hospital. And they are helping to save the environment.
New York Hospital Queen's waste reduction program is the winner of this year's Marriott Service Excellence Award for Values Integration.
The program, which began in 1995, significantly cuts costs for waste disposal and creates connections to the community, says Ken Haber, the hospital's vice president of resource management.
New York Hospital Queens and its sister hospital, 321-bed New York Flushing Hospital, currently spend $150,000 a year for waste disposal. Before the program began, they spent four times as much.
"We prefer to use money for things related directly to healthcare, not for waste," Haber says.
In an area of about 140 square feet, the wiggler worms feed on organic materials -- vegetable cuttings and coffee grounds -- office paper and sawdust from the carpenter's shop. Through a process called vermi-composting, the worms digest these materials and, in a matter of days, produce rich fertilizer, referred to as "Black Gold" by environmentalists.
New York Hospital Queens distributes the fertilizer throughout the community -- to the Queens Botanical Gardens, the Sierra Club, local schools, and to the hospital's own landscaping and fresh herb garden.
With the success of the vermi-composting, the New York State Department of Economic Development gave the hospital a $12,000 grant to explore other alternative means of waste management. As a result, the organization began in-vessel composting at New York Flushing Hospital. Organic materials and paper trash are carted to Flushing from Queens and loaded into earth tubs, which are then sealed off for 60 to 90 days. Fermentation and aeration processes result in production of high-grade topsoil, which also is distributed throughout the community.
Judges for the Marriott awards remarked on the project's innovation and creativity.
"The program is a very nontraditional means of focusing on community service," says judge David Robertson.
Although only one full-time employee devotes 15 hours per week to maintain the program, all employees contribute to waste separation and to the success of the project. "We're changing a culture within the medical center to create a responsible consumer," says Louise Donovan, director of nutrition services at New York Hospital Queens.
For example, to discourage the use of disposable cups, the hospital gives mugs to all employees for use in the cafeteria. With staff understanding of waste disposal, New York Hospital Queens was able to eliminate hazardous wastebags where they were not needed.
"If a patient does not have an infectious disease or an open wound, there is no need to throw anything into a hazardous waste bag," Haber says.
The hospital also hosts an annual Eco-Fest to highlight its waste reduction successes and to educate people in the community about the environment. Visitors receive packets of the hospital-produced fertilizer and tour the vermi-composting site.
Other companies such as Baxter International set up booths in the hospital to showcase their environmentally friendly policies or products.
New York Hospital Queens encourages other institutions to emulate its program or experiment with other projects, Haber says.
"We hope this gets the word out to other hospitals about alternatives and opportunities to handle waste," he says. "We want to make a cleaner, healthier environment for everyone."