Can Medical Waste Be Eco-friendly?

In the United States, more than $4 billion pounds of medical waste is produced annually. Medical waste consists of solids, liquids, sharps, and laboratory waste that are infectious or dangerous. The healthcare industry produces more waste than most industries in the United States. Since medical waste can pose a serious hazard to the general public, it is heavily regulated. The Medical Waste Tracking Act requires health care companies to comprehensively document all of its biohazard and chemical waste disposal practices.

Yet, it’s still difficult to manage all of the material that is classified as medical waste. From syringes and needles to soiled gloves and gauze to formaldehyde and bodily fluids, medical waste must not only be collected from all corners of a health care facility, but also disposed of according to often very specific regulations. In the past, medical waste has required either the implementation of special transportation and landfill storage protocols or incineration on-site or through an approved vendor. However, both approaches expose the environment to harmful or toxic elements that can carry long-term consequences.

Greening Medical Waste Management

In light of these environmental concerns, the healthcare industry seeks to advance eco-friendly medical waste disposal. While some offices and hospitals are trying to comply with corporate or municipal “green” initiatives, larger firms are attempting to demonstrate a sense of responsibility for the environment by developing complex green medical waste management strategies. But can potentially dangerous and toxic medical waste be transformed into anything that’s even remotely eco-friendly?

Fortunately, there are several organizations that help health facilities dispose of their medical waste in a safe and environmentally friendly manner. For instance, Practice Greenhealth provides education and consulting to help facilities find green strategies for disposing of their medical waste. Another example is BD ecoFinity, which developed better sterilization and recycling technologies that allow used sharps to be reprocessed into new medical equipment.

Not only do environmentally friendly options for medical waste disposal reduce the material sent to a landfill, they can also save medical facilities large amounts of money. A recently released study by University of llinois-Chicago suggests that hospitals could save more than $5.4 billion over the next five years by greening their medical waste management practices. Over the next ten years, these savings could amount to $15 billion.

According to UI Chicago’s study, simple waste reduction efforts include reduction of medical waste through better segregation; decrease of landfilled waste through recycling; more efficient purchase of operating room supplies; and the switch to reprocessed devices in the operating room over single-use devices. Many of these changes are often inexpensive to implement and simply require better staff education. Yet, aside from these relatively straightforward methods, what are the more complex and advanced eco-friendly medical waste management techniques used in the industry?

Point-of-care Medical Waste Disposal

Many health care facilities have continued to embrace a point-of care disposal strategy without resorting to eco-unfriendly on-site incineration. One solution is the Trinovamed Green Machine, which pulverizes medical waste and then submerges it in a solution of chlorine dioxide to render it harmless, after which the material dries and winds up as benign, confetti-like refuse. Similarly, Ecosteryl’s line of medical waste disposal devices involves a powerful shredder and a steam-free, waterless microwaving system that purportedly emits zero pollutants and produces a fine homogenate material that is potentially recyclable. However, point-of-care disposal requires large capital investments and appropriate space to house and operate the machinery; which effectively renders it cost-prohibitive for all but the largest health care facilities.

Turning Medical Waste Into Regular Trash

That said, it is still possible for small and medium-size medical centers to “green up” their medical waste disposal processes. Since there are additional environmental risks (not to mention overhead costs) to adopting specialized medical waste transport and storage procedures, a simple and frequently-implemented solution is to process the medical waste so it becomes non-hazardous and non-toxic – essentially transforming it into “regular” garbage which can be disposed of using traditional methods. There are numerous choices in the marketplace for this option; including SteriMed’s biodegradable disinfectant technology, BMTS’s “dry heat”-producing Demolizer which melts and sanitizes sharps and red bag waste, and Stericycle’s Electro Thermal Deactivation system that heats up waste using an oscillating field of low-frequency radio waves to destroy pathogens.

Eliminate Medical Waste Transportation

Finally, health care providers who cannot allocate additional funds toward expensive eco-friendly medical waste solutions can still change their disposal practices and make a positive impact on the environment. This involves removing the need for transporting medical waste altogether, which in itself is responsible for plenty of fossil fuel-based pollutants and greenhouse gases being emitted into the air. To accomplish this, medical waste is simply packaged up and sent through the U.S. Postal Service to an appropriate disposal destination. Companies like Sharps Compliance provide prepaid, safe containers into which solid medical waste can be placed and that can be handed off to any U.S. postal carrier for delivery. This approach eliminates the need for arranging special pickups for the material; additionally, the company also recycles the waste it receives into an environmentally safe raw material used in many industrial processes.

It may not be possible to ever transform all medical waste into substances that are truly “green.” But today’s health care providers do have options available that permit them to reduce their carbon footprint and help safeguard the environment through more responsible medical waste disposal processes.