Choosing to Go Green

Kai Abelkis compares his work as sustainability coordinator for Boulder Community Hospital to the “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy can’t seem to keep up with the chocolates on the conveyor belt.

Though he might feel overwhelmed at times in a world that doesn’t always consider sustainability first, his passion for sustainable business practices and a healthy environment keep him sufficiently motivated to overcome the next challenge. He’s been helping BCH become a leader for sustainability in the medical community since 1999.

Abelkis also teaches a one-day class at the University of Colorado as part of the Sustainability Management Certificate program. It is geared toward teaching students what they need to know and what they need to do to be successful grassroots organizers for sustainability within their companies.

How has it worked so well for Abelkis and the hospital?

“Personal responsibility and choice,” Abelkis said. “In this hospital there is no mandate or policy that says you have to recycle. There is no law and no one can get in trouble, but 99 percent of our employees do it. Why is that?

“Because most people want to do it, they want to participate. This hospital has said, ‘This is important to us and we would like you to be part of that effort.'”

Not every business shares those same values. To those interested in starting a program in a company that doesn’t seem to care about sustainability Abelkis suggests finding a narrative, a way to make the issue personal for each individual. It might be cost savings for a manager or limiting emissions for an employee who has a child with asthma.

In many cases, programs are started small. Maybe a recycling program within just one department or just a few like-minded employees who are dedicated and persistent and encourage others to participate. Abelkis also suggests working with company leaders to craft an environmental statement to be adopted as policy. It can take time, patience and dedication.

“I would say it really is driven by the bottom, but at some point, mindful people at the top will go, ‘Oh, that seems to be working. Hmmm, my community supports this. Hmmm, my employees support this. I think we need to support this,'” Abelkis said.

Abelkis says every business can start somewhere. At BCH it came after steady nudging from employees themselves who started recycling cardboard and aluminum cans and now send expired medical products that, by law, can’t be used in the United States to Project C.U.R.E. for use in developing countries around the world.

The sustainability program at the hospital originated in the early 1990s with two nurses starting a small recycling program, Abelkis said. In 1995, the hospital hired a recycling coordinator, and it graduated to a sustainability coordinator when Abelkis was hired in 1999 after moving to Boulder from Chicago. In the years since, the program has grown to save BCH more than $600,000 a year “in cost savings and cost avoidance.”

Abelkis said an important step for any company in truly pursuing that same level of savings and efficiency is hiring or assigning a sustainability coordinator. He said the job is much more than organizing recycling efforts.

It’s about finding ways to save electricity and water, use fewer products, modify transportation, make the building itself more efficient. Abelkis works with the city, county and state as well as manufacturers every day. His is a growing field with more companies and government agencies hiring sustainability coordinators each year.

“There is no one way to do it with each organization,” Abelkis said. “You really have to mold it. At the end of the day, you really have to do the work.” ν

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