WILLMAR -- Her hands clad in blue gloves, Robin Spencer, a medical technologist in the Rice Memorial Hospital laboratory, rinses a set of used glass vials, then places them in a recycling container next to the sink.
A few steps away stands a shredder for shredding and collecting paper for recycling.
And tucked into a corner of the laboratory is the room where alcohol is distilled and recaptured for reuse.
Of all industries, hospitals generate some of the most complex waste there is: paper, plastic, cardboard boxes, packaging, cleaning supplies, IV bags, pharmaceutical containers, surgical gloves, laboratory chemicals, biological tissues, batteries and even worn-out sheets and towels.
Taming this deluge is no small task.
"We try to keep improving it and making changes to capture what we can," said Leon Nelson, the hospital's housekeeping supervisor.
There are no national statistics on how much garbage is produced by U.S. health care facilities but it's estimated to be billions of tons a year. Although stringent regulations govern the disposal of chemicals, biological waste and other materials deemed to be hazardous, the health care industry has few mandates for recycling and waste reduction.
Fueled by a growing recognition of the financial, social and environmental cost of health care waste, the industry has begun taking steps to address it.
Nelson estimates Rice Hospital already recycles close to 60 percent of the basics such as paper, cardboard and glass.
Not only is it more environmentally friendly but it also saves money, he said.
For example, each year Rice recycles more than 72,000 pounds of shredded confidential paper alone. Six bales of cardboard are collected each week for recycling.
Every pound that's recycled means 5 cents less that's spent on landfill fees -- and it helps extend the life of the county landfill as well, Nelson said. "I would say it's 300,000 pounds a year easily that's not going to the landfill... Everyone recycles around here."
It's only the tip of the iceberg, though. In ways big and small, the hospital is tackling the waste stream to minimize what gets thrown away. Often, this means changing what kinds of products are purchased in the first place, said Spencer, who also is the laboratory's chemical hygiene officer.
"Reducing at the source is best," she said.
Are there alternatives to items wrapped in wasteful packaging? What about products manufactured with recycled materials? Is there a greener option?
"All those little things add up," said Carnie Allex, director of pharmacy at Rice Hospital. "If we each do our part and every employee does their part, it makes a difference."
Allex, Nelson and Spencer are on the hospital's "green team," an offshoot of the environmental safety committee that's tasked with safe waste reduction. The team has been active for at least a decade but has ramped up considerably in the past four years.
In 2007, an inventory was undertaken of every single product purchased in every department, from office paper to chemicals. "That was a humongous survey," Spencer said.
More recently, Rice brought in the expertise of the University of Minnesota's Technical Assistance Program to help identify ways to reduce waste at the source and reduce energy use and costs.
At one time the hospital pharmacy didn't collect cardboard or plastic for recycling. Now the department has a set of recycling bins and they're well used, said Allex.
"It's amazing how quickly those containers fill up," she said.
She and her staff are managing the drug inventory more closely and trying to minimize outdating and overstocking so that fewer unused drugs get tossed.
This past year Rice started buying paper towels manufactured with a higher percentage of recycled content. The hospital has switched to coreless toilet paper rolls. Requesting a Styrofoam food container vs. a reusable plate for your takeout meal from the hospital cafeteria now comes with a 25-cent surcharge.
To cut energy costs, automatic light switches have been installed in lesser-used rooms such as storerooms and conference rooms. The number of fluorescent light bulbs has been reduced.
No area is too small to overlook -- old sheets and towels, for instance, which are donated to the Hawk Creek Animal Shelter, Goodwill or Red Cross, or recycled within the hospital's housekeeping department as cleaning rags.
"At some point some of that wears out and it has to go someplace," Nelson said. "The thing is trying to come up with who can use it."
No area is too big either. When Rice bought a new CT scanner some years ago, the old one was sent to a company that refurbishes major medical equipment for sale in developing nations. Outdated items such as catheters and syringes that are still safe to use can be donated overseas.
At one time there wasn't a well-developed market for health care facilities seeking greener alternatives for commonly used products. This is changing, Nelson said. "The products are becoming cheaper and there are more options."
Laboratory test kits, for instance, are smaller and contain less reagent. There's now a safer alternative to xylene, which is used in preparing tissue samples for study under a microscope.
Another change that has been implemented: purchasing plastic IV bags manufactured with materials that are more environmentally friendly. "We're able to use that, which is less expensive and we're able to dispose of it as well," Allex said.
Also, as electronic medical records become more widespread, they're expected to put a considerable dent in the amount of paper produced at the hospital.
One of the green team's next big initiatives is the introduction of green cleaning products to replace harsh cleansers and aerosols.
"We have just started that process now," Nelson said. "They're going to cost us a little bit more, but in the long run it's going to be better for everyone who works here and for the patients."
Every time Rice acquires a new piece of equipment, a new instrument or a new supply, it's now evaluated for its potential for waste, Spencer said.
"It's never-ending," she said. "But we do it because it's the right thing to do. It really starts at the grassroots. We have some really passionate people."