Growing a green practice
Veterinarians’ role in one health—treating the health of animals, humans, and the environment as interconnected—is understandably most focused on the animal side of things, but some veterinarians are advocating for practitioners to become more environmentally conscious as well.
“Going green” can involve something as major as building or remodeling a clinic in an environmentally sustainable manner. Or it can be as simple as switching to recycled paper or using fleece instead of cotton towels for bedding, says Dr. Matthew B. Rooney, owner of Aspen Meadow Veterinary Specialists in Longmont, Colorado.“
(Fleece towels are) nonabsorbent, and for bottoms of cages, they have a nice cushion. When dirty, we put them in the washer, and the fleece comes out almost dry. You save a ton of money and water,” he said. (See sidebar for more tips.)
Dr. Rooney and other ecofriendly enthusiasts say going green does require a commitment to the endeavor to really make a difference but that the hidden benefits and cost savings make it well worth the effort. It’s all about starting somewhere.
Green by design
When Dr. Rooney decided to build a green practice in 2008, he opted for a renovation project rather than a new structure to keep the project more environmentally friendly.
“New builds are much easier to do, but they use a ton of resources,” he said. So instead, Dr. Rooney bought and had an old auto dealership gutted, reusing or giving away about 70 percent of the materials. Doing so helped his clinic attain LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, which means the clinic meets a certain Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standard for being environmentally responsible and using resources efficiently.
For the design portion, Dr. Rooney decided on a multiuse concept. For example, the laundry room is also the kitchen and blood bank. But the arrangement isn’t permanent. “Right now, we have a doctor's office, but when we’re ready to do a remodel, there are floor drains, and the size of room and design is already set up to turn it into dog runs. We can literally shut the doctor's office door, and five days later, it’s all dog runs when we remodel, so there’s no demolition of walls or having to add waste to a landfill,” Dr. Rooney said.
Veterinary clinics do have particular requirements, but they can be accommodated while going green, Dr. Rooney says. For example, practices need heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems with a high air-circulation rate. The upfront cost for purchasing a more efficient HVAC system may be higher, but according to the Environmental Protection Agency, replacing components of a less efficient HVAC system typically cuts energy costs by about 20 percent.
Dr. Rooney chose an efficient HVAC system with some solar energy components and insulated ducts. In addition, he invested in a thermostat system that—using the clinic’s floor plan—can tell what the temperature is in each room and graph that information over time. The system has sensors for carbon dioxide concentrations that can also calculate how many people are in a room and adjust the temperature and flow rates accordingly.
Plus, Dr. Rooney said, “In the winter, there’s hot air going out the door and new cold air coming in. Our HVAC system has these energy recuperation units that heat or cool the new incoming air with the old outgoing air, which recovers 70 percent of the energy that could have been lost.”
And yet, clinics can't avoid some wasteful practices, he said, such as using a lot of water to spray down kennel runs and clean the rest of the hospital. Disinfectants, too, are not very environmentally friendly but are a must for killing bacteria and viruses. In addition, “Our lights are on all the time since we’re open 24/7. It would be nice if we could lower that,” he said.
Dr. Rooney says he and his wife have always been very environmentally conscious, so there was no question his new facility would be a green build.
“It’s who we are, and from a business standpoint, it’s a core value—environmental and social consciousness,” he said.
Green builds show not only business ethics, he said, but also provide good will in the community, not to mention, private practices can use their ecofriendly credibility as a marketing tool and a way to differentiate themselves from competitors.
It’s who we are, and from a business standpoint, it’s a core value—environmental and social consciousness.
Dr. Matthew B. Rooney, owner, Aspen Meadow Veterinary Specialists
Dr. Rooney says the options and materials available today compared with six years ago when he redid his clinic have grown tremendously. The prices have also dropped a lot as green building has become more mainstream. He advises finding an architect or contractor who is experienced in green building because “they all know the secrets and nuances to getting it done.”
At the same time, Dr. Rooney cautions to choose wisely because of the abundance of “green washing,” which refers to products or individuals with more marketing hype than substance or experience.
“They’ll say slate is natural and ecofriendly, but if it came from New Zealand, that’s not really green,” Dr. Rooney said. “Or, they’ll market plastics as green because they last a while, but they aren’t green because they don’t break down in landfills and are based in petroleum.”
Ohana Pet Hospital, a five-doctor private practice in Ventura, California, went the new construction route in a leasehold space when it had the opportunity to do a startup practice.
One challenge was finding a model veterinary hospital that had done an ecofriendly renovation or build. “In our industry, not a lot of people build veterinary hospitals with this in mind,” said Dr. Janis Shinkawa, one of the practice’s co-owners.
Through networking with the Ventura Chamber of Commerce’s Green Task Force, she found a like-minded design consultant and others who guided the practice through the green building process. The new facility features zero-emission paints, use of natural lighting and light-emitting diodes, and recycled glass countertops, among other environmentally conscious options.
But the work on going green didn’t stop after construction ended in November 2012. The practice’s owners also eliminated waste from everyday causes, including a big one—medical supplies. They discovered they could recycle things such as packaging from fluid bags, the fluid bags themselves, pill bottles, vaccine vials, and syringe casings; however, Dr. Shinkawa recommends veterinarians check with their trash disposal company. Or practitioners could do what her practice did and tour their local recycling plant.
The practice also chose to go entirely paperless, from laboratory services to radiology to banking and payroll.
“That was a challenge initially, but it allowed us to save a lot on the cost of paper, manila folders, and ink toners,” she said. “It makes things so much easier. We’re not looking for paper charts or employee files; it’s online and easier to manage—that way, I can do payroll from home. It definitely was worth the time and investment put into it.”
Dr. Shinkawa continued, “This is an undertaking. I’m lucky to have three other partners who own the practice who were on board with it, and the staff, too. That’s a huge part of it. Everyone has to be on board and pitch in, or it doesn’t work.”
Going green has paid off in a number of ways. It not only reduces everyday costs at the clinic, but also provides a strong marketing tool. That’s been particularly true after the clinic won three awards for being ecofriendly: one from the Ventura Chamber of Commerce, another from the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, and the last from the California Air Resources Board. All have resulted in lots of free press for the clinic, which Dr. Shinkawa says is invaluable, especially for a startup practice such as theirs.
“Our goal, though, is to primarily show that, if it can be done in a veterinary hospital, it can be done anywhere. I want to help colleagues figure out how to do this as well.
"Even if they can’t change their buildings, what they can at least do with their floors or countertops to be ecofriendly can help, or even just have a recycling bin next to every trash bin,” Dr. Shinkawa said. “It’s important to be sustainable and mindful of reducing our waste.”
Green projects for veterinary clinics
Environmentally friendly products have become abundant in recent years and less costly. The following are a few options to consider in making a veterinary practice more green:
- Installing occupancy sensor switches.
- Switching to compact fluorescent or LED light bulbs. Installing a programmable, time-controlled thermostat.
- Making better or more use of natural lighting.
- Purchasing Energy Star products, including water heaters, washers and dryers, refrigerators, ceiling fans, and air-conditioning units.
- Buying low-volume usage toilets.
- Placing recycling bins throughout the clinic.
- Using recycled-content paper for letters, postcards, and other documents.
- Purchasing plant-based laundry detergent, soaps, and surface cleaners.
- Using paint with no or low volatile organic compounds.
- Using recycled-glass solid surfaces and recycled wood, vinyl, or aluminum flooring.
More information about integrating ecofriendly features into veterinary practices can be found at avma.org/GreenPractices.
Related JAVMA links:
Improving energy use in veterinary clinics (April 15, 2006)
Building an ecofriendly practice (Sept. 15, 2005)