Climate change blog from our National Director

I originally wrote this piece in November 2019, but for a variety of reasons, it was never published. There always seemed to be a greater emergency in social care which took precedent; supporting the social care workforce, promoting human rights, challenges of financial sustainability and of course now, a global pandemic.

However, I have decided to go ahead and publish today. Not just because this afternoon I am on a panel at the Health and Social Care Alliance, as they publish their report: Sustainable Health and Social Care: Climate Change and COVID-19’ in which they call for £25 million to support a climate change innovation fund for social care, and the forthcoming hosting of COP26, but also because it is becoming increasingly obvious that the right time must be now.

Pandemic response has in many ways improved our environments, we have reduced our travel for instance and while this should be celebrated and even maintained, we must also consider the impact of increased use of chemicals and disposable equipment such as PPE. These items are of course essential but will have a long-term impact on our environment. Additional to that is the theory that with our natural resources now struggling to maintain balance, we will experience an increasing number of pandemics. Horrific to conceptualise proving to me that the time is indeed now so here is that piece from 2019, perhaps even more relevant today than ever:

In the last few weeks, the plastic cotton bud ban came into force in Scotland.

Over the last 25 years, the Marine Conservation Society has collected 150,000 plastic cotton buds from beaches in Scotland. This legislation follows the microbeads ban in 2018, with further climate environmental related legislation expected in 2021. Scotland’s Government initiative ‘Action Against Plastics’ is in line with the EU Single-use Plastics Directive, in an attempt to reduce the use of single-use plastics and the impact they are having on the planet.

The climate change issue is no more pertinent to me than on seeing the findings from a childhood friend and climate change expert who has recently returned from an expedition to East Greenland where she documented some of the irreversible changes resulting from climate change. Melting glaciers which can never be replaced, whole ecosystems disrupted. It’s funny how more real things seem when they happen to someone you know.

Originating from a perspective of infection control, single-use plastics are everywhere in social care, from cotton buds to protective equipment, to packaging for our medicines and food. There is a real opportunity for the care sector to play a role in leading the way to reduce waste, but also to find other ways to uphold safe high-quality care, in a more environmentally sound way by changing practice, and exploring new materials. The mantra of ‘Reduce. Reuse. Recycle’ has much to offer in this space and some care staff have been involved in adopting and embedding such a culture in their organisations. Via the Scottish Care Strategic Nursing Group, we will also ask the ‘Infection Control’ team at NES for suggestions and resources that they may be able to share.

However, single-use plastics are not the only contributors to the increasing climate change crisis. Health Care Without Harm estimates that measuring the greenhouse gas emissions solely related to heating and cooling the worlds healthcare providers (using the WHO definition so including social care) would make it the fifth-largest contributor in the world. Their report ‘Towards Sustainable Healthcare’ outlines 5 areas where change can be made for the sector as a whole. It covers energy, procurement practices, chemicals, pharma and food, all of which have implications and opportunity for social care. Whilst we can choose how and where we draw our energy, the chemicals we use and the food we buy, but overall, the biggest implication is currently outwith our control. Where external agencies have authority in terms of commissioning and procurement practice, it more often favours cost over quality and sustainability in all definitions.

Across the UK and beyond, organisations have been making eco-conscious changes, but this can often be more achievable at scale. Given that most care providers in Scotland are SMEs, despite desire this can seem a more daunting task.

For care homes and housing support, there are many options that providers have been implementing for over a decade – better insulation, water and lighting efficiencies such as eco taps and aerators, and LED lighting installed where they meet the expectations of creating a homely environment. Last week I met an architect with whom I discussed ‘smarter design’. They have particular expertise in optimising natural light in care homes thus reducing electricity use, but they also described to me the effect this can have on regulating body functions such as your heartbeat and even when you urinate. Design affects the widest definitions of the environment. Structural change is of course more difficult if you have an older property, as to retrofit can present challenge and cost. However, as some of these changes are cost saving in the longer-term, they may also be financially worthy of investment. Whilst access to such resource can be compromised because of the prolonged underfunding of the sector, it is clear that issues of environmental sustainability are just as important for our Commissioning Authorities as for providers and staff.

Whilst some of this also applies to homecare offices, the opportunities for care at home providers lie more in clinical consumables and PPE, and in travel. Smarter route planning can reduce emissions, as well as reducing travel time for employees and reduced vehicle costs.

Indeed, digital and technological developments such as care planning tools may be a significant answer to a range of challenges as they have the opportunity not only to reduce paper waste but also to develop into citizen-owned and controlled systems, making data sharing and data analysis much simpler to experience and access. Projects such as medicines waste reduction which can be enhanced by using digital systems such as E-MAR not only reduce waste, but significantly reduce costs, not to mention the impact of reducing the transport required to issue and deliver scripts.

Scottish Care’s Executive Committee recently revisited the communique written at the Five Nations Care Forum over a year ago, on the role of a sector already renowned for its impact on humanity in extending its activity to include sustainability. We discussed the actions of some providers towards achieving this and would like to hear from you on what you have been doing to support the sharing of good ideas across Scotland. Whilst a culture of environmental audits can help organisations to regularly review their practise, access to a resource full of ideas may offer suggestions to enable other providers to identify and act on areas for improvement. It is also a fantastic way not only to showcase your own work but to positively showcase the sector as a whole in actively addressing the challenge head-on.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Aware, Awaken, Action.

Karen Hedge

National Director