Among the simple waste reduction efforts, the hospitals studied showed a range of 50 cents per patient per day in savings to more than $2.50 per patient per day. Changes in the operating room were as high as $57 per operation.
"We had seen some anecdotal evidence that was very suggestive and showed potentially some very significant [cost savings in a more sustainable model]," Kaplan said.
Many of the changes, promoted by Practice Greenhealth, Health Care Without Harm and the Healthier Hospital Initiative are very inexpensive to implement, Kaplan said.
"Many of them have virtually no upfront costs," she said. "To us, that was one of the most interesting findings."
Often hospital employees throw regular waste together with the regulated medical waste, often referred to as red bag waste. The cost of disposal of medical waste is much higher than regular waste, so adding unnecessary waste can skyrocket costs.
Simply educating employees on what is proper medical waste and what can be disposed in the solid waste stream could lead to big savings, Kaplan said.
"My impression is that perhaps there's a lack of awareness," Kaplan said as to why that practice seems common. "It seemed like the major intervention here was staff intervention and education about segregating in the right waste streams."
Operating rooms are often a place where small sustainable practices can lead to big savings too, according to the study. Many operating rooms are fraught with one-time-use devices that are tossed after the surgery, but there are multi-use products available.
Cardiac catheters, orthopedic surgical blades and ultrasound catheters are among the items that can be easily reprocessed.
"They are minimum costs to the hospital with cost savings beginning immediately," Kaplan said.
Blair Sadler, senior fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, one of the authors of the study and former CEO of Rady Children's Hospital, San Diego, Calif., said the idea of saving money though environmental sustainability efforts is no longer theoretical.
"I was struck by the significant evidence and experience that is now out there," he said. "You can really make a difference in sustainability that improves health care quality and improves the financial bottom line. It's no longer a debate, it's a matter of understanding it, accepting it and deciding which of the variety of strategies or tactics that you want to employ."
Kaplan said for a sustainability program to be successful, there has to be a buy-in from management all the way down to employees.
"Any hospital can start implementing the program. The information on how to get started is out there," she said. "But the culture of commitment can really make a difference."