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Healthcare industry addressing medical waste problems

Healthcare institutions around the world are recycling more of their non-infectious waste and equipment. According to the World Health Organisation, about 85% of hospital waste is non-infectious and can be recycled safely, but most of these waste items are incinerated or dumped in a landfill.

It is easier for hospitals to dispose of medical waste because of the cost implications and patient safety associated with recycling old equipment and materials. To add to this, recycling facilities don’t often accept or process medical waste.

Medical equipment is recovered

However, some healthcare sectors around the world have started to recover and re-use safe, sterilised medical equipment such as catheters, electrosurgical electrodes, blood pressure cuffs, breathing tubes, bed linen and rechargeable batteries.

These processed medical devices can be repurchased by hospitals at a reduced cost, making the use of medical equipment more sustainable. Healthcare industries in poorer countries with limited resources can also benefit from the cheaper medical equipment.

Other medical waste that can be recycled includes paper (hospitals use a lot of paper for patient reports and filing), clinical plastic capsules and tubs, x-ray films and end-of-life electronics. The list of accepted waste items continues to grow and shift as new international legislation is created around medical waste recycling and reuse.

Not all waste management providers are licensed to handle medical waste or are willing to handle hazardous materials. Some waste companies are reluctant to sort and process waste from hospitals, even if it is sterile. There is a lot of responsibility that comes with managing potentially-hazardous waste materials, including worker safety and preventing further contamination once the waste is disposed of.

Hospitals are changing medical procedures

Some hospitals are changing the way they conduct medical procedures to minimise waste. About 30% of medical waste is produced in the operating theatre. The operating kits that are used in the theatre are starting to change slightly.

These kits are starting to contain only what surgeons need, which reduces the disposal of clamps, gauze and sponges. Sterilisation wraps and packaging materials can also be recycled as these are usually kept free from patient contact. These operating room waste items are the first that can be targeted for recycling.

If more medical waste is processed and recycled, a steady stream of cheaper medical supplies can be created. The value of the waste can be retained and resold. Some of the medical waste such as metals and hard plastics can even be recycled into materials for the automotive industry.

New solutions to medical waste stockpiling are being considered and examined. Not only will this be better for the environment and save space at packed landfills, but it will also reduce the cost of medical equipment and make healthcare slightly more affordable for nations.


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