By Matt Skoufalos
For the past two years, surgical technologist Veronica Marella of the Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center has been making headlines for her innovative use of what would otherwise be surgical waste. Marella was inspired to repurpose the wrappers from the surgical tool trays in her unit, called tarps, into sleeping mats for homeless people.
The polypropylene wrappers are highly durable, moisture- and heat-resistant, and, with no other secondary use, were creating a significant amount of garbage in her unit.
After stitching a few of them together with elastic thread, Marella began distributing the mats to homeless people in Torrance, California. She even recorded a YouTube how-to video describing her process so it could be replicated in other surgical environments.
Across the country, in Camden, New Jersey, surgical technologist Dana Scarangelli caught wind of Marella’s efforts after reading a news story about the program. She reached out to Marella, offering to send over the tarps from her own workplace, the Lourdes Health System. “Why not do the program yourself?” Marella countered. Scarangelli’s colleague, nurse anesthetist Laura Faust, was the first person to say, “I’ve got to be part of this,” she remembers, and the two were off and running.
Every time a fresh tray of sterile surgical equipment is unwrapped, a volume of waste is created. The equipment itself is reusable, yet the tarps that protect it are often only long-lived in landfills. Faust was frustrated that there seemed to be no alternative use for them.
“If you could see the amount of tarps that are thrown out every day, it’s incredible,” Faust said. “There’s probably 50 to 80 tarps, close to 100 every day, that are dumped in the trash.”
Of course, unless they frequently remind colleagues to set the tarps aside for them, the tarps usually aren’t diverted from the garbage. Until a better system is established, Faust and Scarangelli are dependent upon voluntary contributions.
“People support us here, but it kind of ends with Dana and myself, and whoever the OR tech is at the end of the day collecting them for us,” Faust said. “It’s been nice, but we need more people.”
“I’d even take a hamper outside the OR that people can throw them in,” she said. “Let’s collect all these tarps. We can do something with them.”
The two can do a lot of things with the tarps, actually. The largest wrappers become sleeping mats. Medium-sized tarps can become ponchos or sleeping bags, and the smaller ones can become reusable totes or cage liners for animal shelters. The variety of products and relative ease in constructing them lends a lot to the reproducibility of their program, Faust and Scarangelli said.
“We fold two into each other, add a couple loops of elastic, roll it up, and it looks like a yoga mat when you’re finished,” Scarangelli said. “Laura added an extra loop so [users] can throw it over one of their shoulders.”
Everything they make is donated to the homeless populations of nearby Camden City and Philadelphia; officers from area police departments have even offered to help with distribution.
“We’ve made a couple hundred,” Scarangelli said. “I’ve taken some to [the Philadelphia neighborhood of] Kensington. The Lourdes OR as a group feeds the homeless twice a year, and I’ve taken a lot of them there.”
The more the women distribute the tarps, the more they’re seeing them being used in the area, Faust said. One man whose mat was stolen from him rode his bike back to the hospital to ask for another, she recalled. Still, the pair are searching for any way to expand the volume and efficiency of their program. First, they reached out to Halyard Health, the Kimberly-Clark subsidiary that produces the tarps, but that company’s Blue ReNew program is only focused on converting used tarps into pelletized resin. Scarangelli and Faust have even sought to find an entity that will collect and bale the tarps for them, but haven’t had much luck as yet.
Other developments have been more positive: when sock manufacturers Bombas heard about their outreach to the homeless, the company donated 1,000 pairs of socks for Scarangelli and Faust to hand out with the mats. Other health care workers throughout the country and in Canada heard about their efforts, and asked how to help. Like Marella, Faust said they’ve tried to help by inspiring others to start their own programs, donating their time, expertise and even a sewing machine or two.
“It’s humbling when people contact you and want to do this,” Scarangelli said.
Even beyond continuing the tarp recycling program, Scarangelli wants to expand environmental and sustainability awareness throughout the hospital. She previously helped cut back on red-bag waste in the operating rooms in her unit by changing team behavior. Encouraging her colleagues to limit their use of the red bag to only highly contaminated waste spared some 13,000 pounds of waste.
Scarangelli said she’d like the hospital to create “a true green team to focus on recycling and up-cycling initiatives; really just try to make it a greener OR.”
In the meantime, neither she nor Faust is confining their creative energies to solving problems in the workplace. In addition to the time the pair spends upcycling the tarps, both are equally busy in other aspects of their lives. Faust is a mother to three boys. Scarangelli runs a candle-making business and a ferret rescue. They still find a few hours a week to sustain (and hopefully expand) their tarp repurposing efforts.
“We’re getting there, it’s just very slow,” Scarangelli said.