The relationship between medical waste and recyclables has become critical. As of January 2018, China has stopped taking most foreign recyclables for processing, one reason being the shipments often contained hazardous and medical waste. As the global community now struggles to find a solution, what can healthcare providers do to address this challenge?
Medical Waste and Recyclables
Medical waste is generated in numerous ways. Large facilities and small practices alike produce surprisingly large amounts of refuse, and despite hazardous-item sorting much of this trash is still contagious or toxic. One reason is the use of catch-all bins for ostensibly non-hazardous items, and the other is inconsistent discard habits by staff and patients with differing definitions of “hazardous.”
The Processing Risk
All this, however, points to the problem of garbage in general, which is that ultimately someone somewhere must sort it, and thereby be exposed to whatever contaminants are present. Smart technology and robots are probably still a long way from handling this sort of detailed work, since it involves recognizing the same material even when configured differently, and also pinpointing various types of contamination. The solution then, goes back to changing habits and volumes “upstream,” where the waste is generated.
Changing the Upstream
The upstream source of medical waste is, of course, medical facilities and their patients. Some strategies for reducing and better handling such refuse include:
- Educating staff and patients on the different types of medical waste, and which types should be considered “hazardous” and unrecyclable
- Providing clearly labeled bins for different types of non-hazardous refuse (for instance, “Used Tissues”) that reduce the chance of even slightly contaminated items from entering the recycle stream
- Finding ways to produce less garbage in general, including recyclables
This last initiative will be the most challenging and will require some creativity and perhaps changes in how you run your practice. One obvious technique would be to reduce the amount of medical inventory that expires and enters the waste stream. This includes not only
With most recyclable refuse no longer going to China, the need for reducing the waste stream will become increasingly obvious as backed-up trash arrives at landfills and incinerators and begins to affect public health. Along with the rest of society, medical providers can lead the way in reducing the impact of some of the more dangerous garbage that we produce.