Management of hazardous medical waste in poor health

Waste professionals were given a condemning overview of the management of waste in the healthcare industry at a London meeting this week.

Speaking at a gathering of the Charted Institute of Waste Management, Sian Fisher, chair of the organisation's North West branch highlighted a bad practice, costly mistakes and a lack of training and accountability.

Among the many sins committed by hospitals and others dealing with medical waste was poor separation, meaning infectious hazardous waste was frequently being mixed with domestic waste, leading to - at best - soaring disposal costs and at worst the risk of contamination.

Bins containing infectious waste were being left open to the elements in inappropriate locations while poor security meant the desperate were able to steal needles from sharps bins.

"In a hospital waste you will produce just about every type of waste that's going," she said.

"While a lot of it does have to go to incineration or alternative treatments, most of it is domestic waste that isn't being separated properly.

"When you consider clinical waste costs £350 per tonne to dispose of and domestic costs £75, that's a lot of money wasted."

Staff training was often woefully insufficient, she said, whilst auditing and monitoring was often all-but absent.

"You need to know who is producing what waste, where, when and why," she said.

"But in most hospitals I go into they haven't a clue."

"In general there is poor provision for training of staff - patient care must be their priority, of course, but they need to know what to do with waste."

While medical waste comes with its own particular set of difficulties, the healthcare industry is also failing in terms of everyday waste management.

"The NHS currently recycles less than 2% of its waste which is appalling when you think that it is the biggest employer in Europe.

"There are huge opportunities here as a lot of that waste is recyclable."

Among the many obstacles were a lack of storage space and an unwillingness among waste disposal contractors to collect recyclables from small concerns like GP's surgeries, clinic, dentists or vets.

The Environment Agency has made auditing healthcare waste a priority, said Ms Fisher, and the process has already begun.

Some trusts had seen this as a wake up call and progress was finally starting to be made.

Ms Fisher said: "We're still struggling, but there is hope for the future."

Sam Bond



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