Alex Mullarky is a writer, veterinary nurse and environmentalist who works at a veterinary practice in Edinburgh.
Writing about sustainability from the perspective of VN Futures seems very fitting since, without a timely and dramatic change to the way we work and live, our collective future looks very worrying. I don’t want to paint too bleak a picture, since climate anxiety is something we are all becoming intimately familiar with and can lead to a feeling that nothing we do has any impact. I don’t believe this is true, and I particularly believe in the power of action taken from a grassroots level to make a real difference.
When I first became a student vet nurse several years ago, I was so overwhelmed by everything I had to learn that, even though I was fairly eco-conscious in my personal life, I didn’t think about sustainability at work at all. I remember when a new vet started a few months after me, she immediately asked where the recycling was and then designated a cardboard box as our new recycling bin. It was a wake-up call.
From then on I tried to think critically about the footprint of our practice and the wider industry. I had a lot of questions about what could be recycled and how things could be reused, but I wasn’t sure who to ask. I came across a really informative page called Zero Waste Veterinary, but at that time I couldn’t find a discussion forum on this subject, so I started a Facebook group called The Sustainable Vet Nurse. The purpose of the group is to provide a place for vet nurses (and any other members of the clinic team) to ask each other for advice and ideas.
Three years on, the group now has over 6,000 members from all around the world. As a community we have created a checklist which goes room-by-room through the clinic with an ever-growing list of suggestions for changes to make practices more sustainable – everything from switching computers’ search engines to Ecosia, which plants trees, to reducing waste anaesthetic gases during surgery. We also have a collaborative reading list which is a starter guide to the climate crisis, promoting biodiversity and sustainable living. All over the globe, vet nurses are showing that they are keen to improve the way we work for the sake of our planet, and starting to make changes in their own clinics.
In 2019 I was contacted by Laura Higham, a British vet who at that time was in the process of setting up a group to drive sustainability across the industry. Vet Sustain now exists as a social enterprise, providing resources, support and expertise to veterinary professionals on everything from reducing waste to improving biodiversity. It has a network of Vet Sustain Champions who meet every few months to discuss improving sustainable practices in our workplaces. I highly recommend signing up to the newsletter and following them on Facebook if you want to stay up to date on news and opportunities like the free webinars they often host.
Even after I started The Sustainable Vet Nurse, it was a long time before I felt confident enough to start making suggestions for changes at work. I have worked at several clinics over the past few years and some have been more receptive than others. I am very fortunate to now be working in a practice that already had a green group and lots of sustainable measures in place, and is really positive about improving the way we do business. It can be very nerve-wracking to start that conversation with your employer, but remember that most people now have a good understanding of the crises we are facing. It may be that management want to be making changes at work but feel too busy or overwhelmed to be able to do so. They may well be glad you have come to them with ideas and the enthusiasm to put them in place.
Sustainability is a term that in many ways falls short of the scale of the issue. It’s not just about finding ways to continue with business as usual, it’s about fundamentally challenging the ways we think about the impact our actions have on the world. The climate and ecological crises are inextricably linked to systems of power rooted in colonialism and the disenfranchisement of vulnerable people. The more you learn about the intersections of these issues, the more there is to know. There are a few books and podcasts recommended in The Sustainable Vet Nurse Reading List which is one place you can start, but reading widely and always being open to learning more are key.
If you’re not sure where to start in practice, download the checklists from Vet Sustain and The Sustainable Vet Nurse and just pick one small thing to begin with, like putting a recycling bin and some guidelines in your staff room. Tick things off one at a time, and know that your work will never be finished. Sustainability in the vet clinic is a journey but there isn’t exactly a destination – it’s a constant process of re-evaluating the actions we take for granted and imagining ways to do them better.
Sometimes, when you’re sitting in a hallway surrounded by rubbish attempting to sort through the recycling, it can feel like you’re trying to turn back the tide. But the truth is, you’re not acting in isolation. It’s nurses in clinics all over the world taking these actions and coming up with new ideas that are adding up to create a shift in the way we work and more widely challenging the mindsets we too often take for granted. As Rob Hopkins puts it in his book From What Is to What If, “If we wait for the government it will be too late. If we act as individuals it will be too little. If we act as communities, it might just be enough.”
Zero Waste Veterinary
Vet Sustain – Greener Practice Checklist and Facebook
Veterinary Sustainability Forum
The Sustainable Vet Nurse – Checklist and Reading List
From What is to What If by Rob Hopkins