How COVID-19 has Impacted Sustainable Waste Management in the Healthcare Sector

Managing healthcare waste in a safe and sustainable manner reduces the impact on the environment and human health. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a significant increase in the infectious waste stream, which has impacted the capacity of some waste disposal routes. Meanwhile, the amount of single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) waste generated as a result of the coronavirus pandemic is slowly becoming a global sustainable waste management crisis.

What are the specific challenges in the management of healthcare waste?

The primary challenge for healthcare waste during the pandemic was ensuring that it was correctly categorized and handled. Once waste is categorized, the appropriate treatment and disposal methods can be followed, keeping disposal fees down and reducing the environmental impact of the waste treatment.

Waste arises in numerous parts of the clinical and healthcare setting. Healthcare facilities need to consider how each of these locations can easily segregate their waste so that they are not sending unnecessary volumes to more expensive and environmentally less sustainable streams, such as clinical or infectious waste.

How do these challenges differ for non-clinical facilities, such as care homes?

Healthcare waste from care homes depends on what facilities the care home offers, as not all offer medical support to the residents. Newer infection control protocols which have arisen as a result of COVID-19 have meant that there is now more PPE waste than before, increasing the volume of waste that care homes produce. Their capacity to store waste before collection may have also been tested by this increase in volume.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted waste management in the healthcare sector?

A healthcare waste management strategy usually addresses:

  1. Regulatory compliance
  2. Responsibilities of staff members
  3. Definitions/classification of healthcare waste
  4. Specific procedures for handling healthcare waste
  5. Training of related workers

In response to the pandemic, healthcare waste management strategies now include additional measures to ensure appropriate containment for avoiding infection.

As per the guidelines of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), healthcare waste generated by COVID-19 patients is considered the same as waste generated by other patients. The waste should be treated as regular healthcare waste and does not require any additional special treatment.

Waste from confirmed COVID-19 patients, i.e., infectious waste, sharps, and pathological waste should be collected with safety measures and kept in special bags with proper markings.

Operatives handling this waste should use PPE, i.e., boots, long-sleeved gowns, heavy-duty gloves, masks, goggles, and face shields, and they should wash their hands with sanitizer or disinfectant after disposing of the waste.

As long as this safety guidance is followed, there is minimal risk to members of staff becoming infected with the virus as they handle waste. Assuming that all waste is handled in line with the official guidance, it’s safe to move and will not contribute to the spread of infection.

The pandemic initially led to an over-categorizing of waste. Additional waste was going into some streams which were typically only low volume and this led to waste having to be stored on site awaiting collections. Once guidance was issued on the safe and correct categorizing of waste, volumes started to drop back down.

Development of suitable management is crucial in the current situation. Recyclability and reduction of landfill should always be considered to aid sustainable management of healthcare solid waste during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

There has been a massive increase in PPE, due to healthcare workers following personal hygiene guidelines, and this has impacted the treatment capacity of sites. In some instances, this has resulted in haulers having to travel further to dispose of the waste, increasing transport costs.

With the general increase in waste volumes, a common need was for facilities to have more containers to store the additional waste, increasing their operational costs.

What is the most effective strategy for sustainable healthcare waste management?

A good healthcare waste management system requires an assessment of the waste stream and existing environmental practices, evaluation of waste management options, development of waste management plans, and creation of institutional policies and guidelines that define the roles and responsibilities of all personnel.

Establishment of waste management organization, allocation of staff, financial resources, implementation of plans, periodic training, monitoring, evaluation, and continuous improvement are also important for sustainably managing healthcare waste.

A waste management team or committee is also commonly formed to develop and implement the waste management plan.

Overall, the optimization of healthcare resources may significantly reduce waste generation. An effective management strategy for healthcare waste during the COVID-19 pandemic typically resembles this diagram:

Innovative Sustainable Waste Treatment Solutions

Some waste treatment equipment producers have been developing solutions to handle the massive rise in waste specific to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as PPE. One such device is a system that thermally compacts polypropylene (PP) and re-engineers it so that it is suitable to make new products.

Initially developed to recycle PP surgical tray wraps and drapes in hospitals, it was adapted to also recycle medical-grade surgical face masks and other PPE. The device works by heating the PP up to 350 °C and then thermally compacting it into rectangular blocks that can be converted into pellets.

As well as reducing waste, the system also helps reduce carbon emissions associated with transporting waste by an average of 65% and results in cost savings due to the high cost of clinical waste disposal. While these solutions are still in their infancy, they offer a glimpse at what the future of healthcare waste management might look like.

Sustainable and Safe Waste Management with NWA

National Waste Associates (NWA) has decades of experience providing sustainable, safe, low-cost waste management solutions to the healthcare industry. Our expert team looks at your operations holistically, and provides solutions that are tailored to the individual location. This diligent approach provides the greatest cost savings and ensures compliance.

We’ll also recommend how to streamline your waste operations so you’ll have the lowest carbon footprint, and ensure the maximum value is extracted from all resources consumed. All while following the latest COVID-19 safety guidance to ensure optimal safety for your staff and all waste operatives.

Want to make your waste management operations safer and more sustainable?
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