Recyclers are increasingly suffering from trypanophobia. What’s trypanophobia? That’s the word for needle phobia. It is estimated that between 4 percent and 20 percent of people fear needles. Most of these fears are baseless and irrational—but, can cause behavior changes that put them at risk—such as avoiding the doctor, refusing routine blood tests and failing to use prescriptions that require injections. Unfortunately, the risk for the recycling industry is very real.
Needles, also known as syringes and lancets or collectively as sharps, often make their way to recycling facilities due to careless disposal by people that use them at home. Sharps are used at home to control a variety of conditions including diabetes, human immunodeficiency virus, hepatitis, allergies as well as for illegal drug use. According to the Coalition for Safe Community Needle Disposal, Americans discarded nearly 8 billion needles in 2011, triple the number from just 10 years prior.
Rules governing sharps disposal vary from state to state. Some states require management of sharps through mail-back programs or household hazardous waste events. Others simply recommend placing sharps in a rigid container such as a detergent bottle and disposing of the container in the trash. Regardless, placing sharps in recycling is always discouraged.
So how do the sharps get there in the first place?
In hospital settings, sharps disposal is controlled. Designated containers and locations for sharps disposal are established and maintained. These containers are then managed as medical waste. With household sharps usage however, it is like the Wild West. Much of the problem likely rests with public confusion. When they place their sharps in a container normally designated for recycling, it may seem contradictory to then place that container in the trash.
What is the harm?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, occupational exposure to bloodborne pathogens from needle sticks is a serious problem. They estimate that almost 400,000 sharps—related injuries are sustained by hospital-based healthcare personnel annually. These injuries are associated with hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV transmission as well as the transmission of more than 20 other pathogens.
Employees at recycling facilities are vulnerable to needle sticks, especially when removing unacceptable materials from the conveyor belts. Recyclers have instituted a number of best practices to protect workers including requiring personal protective equipment such as puncture resistant gloves and shutting down the conveyor to remove sharps. These practices lead to lower productivity from equipment downtime and add to the financial burden of recycling regardless of whether a needle stick occurs.
When a needle stick does occur, even more costs are incurred. The CDC estimates that for each needle stick, direct costs can range from $71 to over $5,000 for initial and follow-up treatment. Further direct costs can include medical care should a transmission occur and litigation as well as indirect costs related to lost time and emotional costs.
What can we do?
Spread the word—trypanophobia is real for recyclers.
Anne Germain is director of waste and recycling technology for the National Waste & Recycling Association and may be reached at (202) 364-3724 or firstname.lastname@example.org.