Lisa Vanlint

Lisa Vanlint is the Energy Steward at University Health Network and has worked there since 2011. Lisa focuses on employee engagement, behavior change and environmental compliance in varied areas of sustainability including energy, waste, procurement, toxics and transportation. She also captains a dragon boat team (extremely sustainable transportation!).

Green Gab: So first off, could you tell us a little bit about who you are?

Lisa Vanlint: So, I’m Lisa Vanlint. I work at University Health Network (UHN) and I’m an Energy Steward there working in the energy and environment department. I’ve been there since 2011, and I must say it’s a very exciting place to work and a particularly exciting department to work in because I get to bring sustainability and healthcare together. These are two things that I absolutely love, and there is so much crossover, though not everybody sees it. The more people make this connection, the more we can build healthy societies, not to get too grand, but why not?

There’s a lot going on at UHN, from the hands-on patient care to the research element, to the training of all staff. There’s an element for sustainability in everything that happens. And that’s one of the wonderful things about my department is that we try to work with all different elements of UHN to ensure that happens. 

My role focuses on training and engagement. There’s a lot of project work as well, but the training and engagement part is definitely the fun side. So, one of the things that I do like to do is try and make sure that if somebody is doing something good already, that we can amplify whatever that is so that people can say, “Oh wait, that’s a good idea. I hadn’t thought of that. Why don’t we do that? We can do that”. It’s amazing how easy it becomes once one person has done that leading to being able to bring more people into the fold.

GG: Wow, that’s fantastic. I was doing some background and the list of stuff you’re involved in when it comes to the Energy Steward role is incredible.

LV: Thank you. One of the other things is that it gets to be a part of healthcare but it’s also a lot of other things. So, there’s the energy element, so energy conservation, waste reduction, toxics dispositions, so we want to make sure that people throw things out properly when they do have to throw things out. And it can even do some of the more fun things like sustainable transportation, how people are getting to and from- and actually that’s been one of the things that has been taking a lot of my time lately, in a great way. As well as even sustainable food and gardens and things like that. But sustainable transportation is the project I’m currently working on, to help increase our bike parking infrastructure, which really helps.

GG: When were you initially attracted to the field of sustainability in healthcare?

LV: I was always attracted to the idea of sustainability ever since I was a teenager and went to the Environmental Youth Alliance conference where I met David Suzuki and saw him speak for the first time. Now this was a long time ago, when he was new. I’m dating myself a little bit there, but that’s okay. And that was absolutely eye opening. 

Fast forward a few years and actually I’m in nothing related to sustainability but I’m in healthcare. But I knew it was important to understand how systems work in healthcare, and then there was an opportunity to become the Greening Coordinator at St. Michael’s Hospital where I worked at the time. And I saw that job description and was so excited by it because again it went back to the idea of sustainability and it was a very exciting role to take. So, I went from there and then went to University Health Network. It’s been a nice journey. 

GG: So kind of getting a little bit broader here, but what are your thoughts on how environmental sustainability impacts healthcare, even vice versa?

LV: So, one of the things we try to talk about a lot is climate change. I know right now everybody is thinking of the other C-word, COVID-19, but climate change hasn’t gone anywhere in this time and in fact I think there’s a lot more awareness of how the climate affects our health. 

With places like India shutting down and then all of a sudden having air that they can breathe and see through, there’s actually a lot of avoided deaths that we’re having because of lowered amounts of air pollution, for example. 

There’s such a correlation between the climate and health that I hope that everybody else gets it as much as I think that this group does. Because if we ignore it as well, if we live in a way that doesn’t acknowledge the importance of our climate and the importance of sustainability, then we will create so many more health problems. So, there is such a link between us and our environment. Now the good thing is, if we fix many of the things in our environment, we also fix so many things in health. So, really, it’s a public health issue.

GG: Is there a sustainability initiative or program that you were involved in or that you headed within the healthcare system?

LV:  A lot of people normally would travel to work via TTC. Because of COVID-19, people are a little nervous to do so because of fears of transmission. You know, trying to avoid public spaces. It would be devastating if everybody all of a sudden went from taking transit to driving a car to work – think about what the gridlock would be like, and as we know climate change is coming from us burning fossil fuels, not to mention the fact it’s really expensive to build parking lots. We don’t have the space to do that and it would be a terrible waste of funds to do so. 

On the other hand, we can actually fit a lot more people in bike parking infrastructure, and we’re glad to see the City of Toronto has put in 40km more protected bike space. If you build it, they will come. They’re coming. We’re getting more inquiries about cycling and UHN in the 4 months than we had in the last 4 years. So, we’re about to increase our cycling infrastructure by about double. 

And it doesn’t sound like much, but that simpler thing allows people to make a much healthier choice, and it’s healthy for the environment as well.

GG: What are some challenges that you’ve faced trying to implement this?

LV: Funding.

The reason the best things don’t happen all at once and easily is because someone has to pay for it. So, it’s trying to make sure that, I guess, everybody has the right intention and also the right funding source in order to make sure this happens. And that you can prove that whatever you’re doing is an effective use of funds as well. Not every sustainability project saves money, but many of them do, especially when they’re related to energy. Often you can show that, “Hey, if we do this, then every year we save X amount of dollars.” At this point in time, we’ve got a fantastic graph, you can see it in our annual report, and we’ve saved 24.4 million dollars in the last decade or so through our energy projects.

GG: What are some of the factors you think have led to your success in this position?

LV: I’ll give a lot of credit to my boss, Ed Rubinstein, he’s fantastic. One of the things that he’s always insisted on is metrics. For everything that we do, we try to measure the impact. We try to make sure that we have ongoing project tracking so that we know exactly what we’ve done and where we want to go and how to get there. I try to tell my son this – does not work well. One day.

GG: That’s very good to hear. What’s the next step for your plan at the moment?

LV: There are so many plans that are going on right now, I’ve only talked about a couple of things. I haven’t even fully appreciated things like so many staff that are part of sustainability like our Green Team. You basically are a Green Team, but this is all UHN staff. They’re welcomed to join the Green Team and this is just people who kind of want to act almost like a fire marshal but for the environment for their area. Though we’ve got a great team in Energy and Environment, we’re small and UHN is huge. There are over 16,000 employees, that’s a lot of ground to cover. I can’t have this one-on-one conversation with everybody, I would love to, that would be great. So the Green Team by training them, it’s following the “train the trainer” methodology, where they’re able to sort of go into their areas and use that lens of sustainability to look around and say, “Oh, you know, this we can improve. Why are we doing that? Maybe we need to do this”. And there’ve been so many projects where there was waste reduction or going to reusables when something was single use. There’s always a challenge though because, and I’m finding this from COVID, speaking about single use, that everybody has gotten so comfortable with the idea of disposable everything. Eventually we’re going to have to unlearn a lot of the things that we learned in that respect. At the same time as protecting ourselves and our communities. I don’t think that in order to protect everyone that we have to necessarily go to everything disposable. We’ll get there. 

GG: Yeah we’ll get there, exactly. Now, in terms of the project for biking, is there anywhere where people can read more about the initiative?

LV: For the bike initiative, we haven’t put it out there yet, as to how big a lot of these bike parking plans are going to be. Mostly because we don’t want to announce it until it’s ready to go so people can use it. So, no. We’ve hinted it to our bicycle user group, which is about 600 or so staff that are interested in cycling and we just send them information about a little bit that’s going on at UHN for cycling, so they are shortly going to be really excited. We consulted with them as well, so I think they know some things going on because I did say, “Blue skies, if you could have everything you wished for, what would you like?” to make sure that, because, you know, we’ve had our plan, but I might be missing something if I’m not at a specific place and don’t know what their concerns are. I was happy to see that what we wanted to do turned out to be what we should be doing, but we had even more good feedback to make sure we were on the right path. But when it comes to most things, we put everything on our blog, Talkin’ Trash with UHN

GG: Alright, well, we’re really grateful to have you here, thank you so much for everything, for your time.

LV: Thank you, any time.