The Importance of Waste Management in Epidemics and Pandemics

02 March 2020 by CSG

Clinical, medical and pharmaceutical waste

I doubt anyone has missed the many reports of coronavirus’s (COVID-19) spread across the world, now on the verge of becoming a pandemic.

For people who have visited affected areas like China, Japan or Italy, the UK government recommend self-isolation for 14 days. If you show (even mild) symptoms like fever, sore throat, or a cough you need to call the NHS on 111 and inform them of your condition.

The importance of healthcare waste management in an epidemic

Vigilant management of healthcare waste is crucial to minimise the spread of an epidemic – but it’s seldom talked about.
So, what is clinical waste? In broad terms, it is waste produced by healthcare facilities (or related facilities; like laboratories, blood banks etc.) that may have been exposed to an infection or which may be hazardous. This includes:

  • Waste contaminated with bodily fluids like blood, cultures and stock of infectious agents from laboratories, or waste which has been in contact with patients with infections.
  • Human tissue, organs, body fluids, and body parts.
  • Chemical waste like solvents, reagents, sterilizers, heavy metals (i.e. broken mercury thermometers) and batteries.
  • Syringes, needles, scalpels, blades or other sharp items.
  • Old, unused or expired medicines, vaccines and drugs.
  • Cytotoxic and cytostatic waste often used in cancer treatments.
  • Radioactive waste.
  • General waste which might not cause any specific biological, chemical, radioactive or physical hazard, but have been in a healthcare facility.

On average high-income countries produce 0.5kg of hazardous waste per bed per day, while a low-income country on average produce 0.2kg (although separation of general waste and hazardous waste is not as strict as in high-income country).

In an epidemic, much greater volumes of clinical waste are produced. For example, frequent use of personal protective equipment (PPE), increased usage of single-use items, and stricter guidelines for disposing of cleaning and disinfection material. Due to the increased volume of waste, there is also a greater risk of clinical waste being poorly managed.

Three major groups are extra vulnerable to being exposed to the virus if medical waste is poorly managed: patients, healthcare staff and waste management staff. However, the general public is also likely to become exposed to the virus if clinical waste is inadequately controlled.

Continuous vigilance and strategic plans on how to deal with infectious medical waste are necessary to mitigate the impact of these infections on patients, staff, and the community.

What methods should we use to minimise the risk of an infection spreading?

Firstly, all staff that in some way come in contact with clinical waste needs to be educated on how to correctly dispose of clinical waste and how to protect themselves while handling the clinical waste. This includes both healthcare staff, but also anyone dealing with clinical waste after its disposal.

Secondly, segregation of clinical waste ensures that the waste can be disposed of using safe and secure waste management methods.

Thirdly, careful disinfection and sterilisation of multiple-use items minimise the spread of the virus, and sterilisation materials should be disposed of as clinical waste. Similarly, single-use items should be disposed of directly after usage.

Finally, waste management facilities must take appropriate measures under the correct legislation to secure the safe storage and disposal of healthcare waste at a suitable permitted treatment facility and/or Healthcare Waste transfer station.

CSG offers safe, responsible, compliant regulated medical waste services that reduce contamination risk, protect human health and support sustainability. We work to continuously improve our waste management methods on packaging, storage and treatment by collaborating with local and national companies across the UK.

No single treatment option is optimal for all waste streams because of very different risk profiles and regulations. While we recycle whenever possible, medical and hazardous wastes require special treatment because of the high potential for viruses, chemicals and other contaminants harmful to people and the environment.

We are happy to assist you if you have further questions on this subject or if you are in need of someone to dispose of your clinical waste.