I began this blog more than a year ago, with hopes of regularly interviewing an interesting leader in environmental, ecological or green tech industries, who resides in the US Rocky Mountain region. Since I have my own consulting business, and kids, I got off track. To make things more manageable, I’m going to start a 3-question format. I need leads! Send me your contacts, who deserve some space in the blog. Thanks! You can can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kai Abelkis began working as a sustainability cheerleader in healthcare long before it was cool—or even desirable. As the sustainability coordinator for Boulder Community Hospital (BCH) since 1999, Abelkis oversees a program which is by many accounts a national model for environmentally-friendly practices. The BCH Foothills Hospital, which opened doors in 2003, is the first LEED certified medical facility in the country. Over the last 10 or so years, Boulder Community Hospital has received numerous local and national awards for its efforts in recycling, energy efficiency including the use of wind energy, promoting alternative transportation and developing high-performance, sustainable buildings.
The industrious advisor behind many of these programs, Abelkis says he is “humbled” by the opportunity to serve his community in this way.
“I have seen that what we have been able to put into place has an impact globally,” he says. As an example, he recalls a visit from a Rwandan businessman working on rebuilding communities destroyed by years of genocide, who is now implementing some of the same sustainability programs in a new hospital back in his country.
Despite experiencing a chapter of “extreme environmentalism” as a fundraiser for Greenpeace, he didn’t exactly walk off his college campus in Birkenstocks. He first tried advertising, and then worked in public relations in Chicago. “I was walking down Michigan Avenue one day and I had an epiphany. I felt that I had a lot of talent, and was promoting companies really what I want to do?”
His entree into environmental work was gutsy: he was part of a group that tried to derail Mayor Daley’s misguided (and now defunct) blue bag recycling program. Intrigued by the political experience, he ran for an alderman position in his neighborhood, lost, and then decided with his wife to pull up stakes and head west for Boulder. “We didn’t have jobs here, and we had two kids, and were living in someone’s basement for a while,” he recalls.
Fighting the “waste mentality” of healthcare
BCH originally only hired him for 10 hours a week, but before long, (after a stint working at Eco-Cycle), he was approved for a full-time job. While Abelkis maintains that the BCH executive team is fully behind sustainability and conservation, he admits that what he’s doing goes against the grain of healthcare’s profit model:
“The healthcare industry is really meant for waste. The more waste we create, the more money we make. There is no economic incentive to reduce waste.”
That last point is changing, though. BCH—which consists of two hospitals, a community medical center, sports medicine facility and outpatient services — realizes $650,000 a year in cost savings or cost avoidance from the sustainability program and related waste-reduction efforts, says Abelkis. He likens the groundswell of environmental programs in healthcare (Cleveland Clinic, Kaiser Permanente, and Catholic Healthcare West among others, he says, are jumping on the green wagon) to the recognition by hospital executives in the 1980s that having cigarette vending machines in lobby areas was probably not the best way to promote patient health.
“Today there is a growing awareness in healthcare about the environment. I have had every hospital in the Denver metro area call us for advice. At end of the day [the healthcare industry] is one of the largest users of energy, water, products, and one of the largest wasters of materials. We have lots of opportunities to reflect our own values in what we do. I try to live by those values, and I really think I do. I don’t want more stuff…I don’t need a big house.”
When it comes down to it, Abelkis is a bit of a missionary. He is convinced that the larger conversation around green business and green this or that needs to focus on people. “The whole discussion about climate change should really be about health,” he says. “It’s not a green tech issue….that is a kind of a band-aid. We need to look at the cause.”
And in his view, the cause is waste and consumerism— filling the void of our collective “spiritual hunger” through overspending, overeating and overusing. “That is the biggest challenge we face in this country. Happiness comes through connections with other human beings…. but we are now being pressured to consume to rebuild our economy.”
Contact Kai at email@example.com, if you’d like to learn more about his work at Boulder Community Hospital.
In the future, this site will cover influential, intriguing and under-the-radar individuals with an environmental focus, who are living and working in the Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, and New Mexico. We will feature leaders and contributors in the worlds of green tech, green business, environmental non-profits, corporate sustainability, government, law, and advocacy. Please come back soon!