The Challenges of Healthcare Waste, Environmental Impact and SustainabilityThe Challenges of Healthcare Waste, Environmental Impact and Sustainability
The healthcare industry is a significant contributor to waste generation, with hospitals alone producing over 5 million tons of waste annually. Improper management of medical waste can negatively impact the environment and potentially harm communities.
April 18, 2023
Healthcare organizations play a crucial role in society by providing life-saving treatments, surgeries, and care to individuals. However, with this responsibility comes the challenge of managing the vast amount of waste produced daily. The healthcare industry is a significant contributor to waste generation, with hospitals alone producing over 5 million tons of waste annually. Improper management of medical waste can negatively impact the environment and potentially harm communities.
Waste360 reached out to Cory White, Executive Vice President, and Chief Commercial Officer of Stericycle, to talk about the challenges the healthcare industry faces when it comes to waste and its environmental impact, ways we can limit medical waste, the positive steps being taken in the medical waste world, and how Stericycle is making positive changes to organizations.
One of the big challenges for medical waste is that there are just so many different streams of it, including regulated medical waste (RMW) and pharmaceutical waste.
“Two of the biggest challenges healthcare organizations face are inefficiencies in segregating and managing their waste streams and a lack of understanding of proper disposal practices by staff due to minimal training,” says White. “Anyone working within healthcare should be trained in how to separate regulated wastes, given that improper separation methods could increase costs and impact sustainability efforts.”
The facts don’t lie that medical waste can greatly negatively impact the environment, and it’s happening by the bed. An average of 29 lbs. of waste is produced per hospital bed per day and overall hospitals are producing more than 5 million tons of waste each year, according to White.
According to Stericycle’s 2022 Healthcare Workplace Safety Trend Report, most of the administrators surveyed, 81%, believe their organization is doing enough to reduce its environmental impact with proper waste disposal, however, a little more than half of providers would agree.
“Improperly disposed pharmaceutical waste can leach into landfills and waterways and potentially damage ecosystems and communities. Sending pharmaceutical waste for incineration prior to disposal helps to keep active pharmaceutical ingredients out of the environment,” says White.
While the negative impacts are real, different companies are working on solutions to limit medical waste contamination and divert them from landfills where they can. Stericycle is one of the leaders in the industry looking for innovative ways to help organizations and individuals face challenges and support sustainability efforts.
White laid out some tips for organizations and consumers facing medical waste challenges, hoping to kick start good practices, and cutting down on contamination.
For organizations, White mentions that companies can look at different waste containers such as reusable waste containers and one-container solutions. Since the COVID-19 pandemic has ramped up the use of sharps and consequently increased the amount of sharps waste, organizations would find it beneficial to use reusable waste containers rather than disposable containers to cut down on plastic waste.
For consumers, White mentions that cutting down on prescription waste will minimize impacts to waterways and to do this, consumers should look to use medication mail envelopes or medication collection kiosks. These methods are secure ways to dispose of unused medications anonymously so that they may be disposed of properly.
“By adopting solutions like these, we can prevent medical and pharmaceutical waste from ending up in the wrong hands or polluting our communities,” added White.
Of course, for organizations, it’s hard to get entire teams on board and hold people accountable for sustainability programs and many organizations don’t have a dedicated role to handle the waste management process. Stericycle works as a knowledgeable outside partner who finds potential opportunities for efficiency or training improvements. Stericycle also serves as a valuable resource to help take some of the weight off an organization’s shoulders and support staff for long term success.
For Stericycle, some of these waste stream solutions include Providing Stericycle technicians who oversee day-to-day waste container management, offering educational and continuous improvement resources in-person and online, and providing custom analytics and reporting with an analysis that tracks progress toward an organization’s sustainability goals. Plus, Stericycle works to serve as a primary waste vendor and manages relationships with other vendors that collect a healthcare organization’s solid waste and other waste streams not handled directly by Stericycle.
“Together, we can develop a reliable program for medical waste handling and disposal that protects the health, safety and well-being of staff, patients and the surrounding community,” said White.
Editor's Note: Learn more about the state of healthcare waste May 2-3 at WasteExpo 2023 New Orleans during the Healthcare Waste Conference.