Medical Waste Pollution in the U.S.

Exactly how much pollution occurs in the U.S. is unknown, but minimizing what is incinerated is the goal for healthcare facilities.

Believe it or not, medical waste removal and disposal is still a rather new topic considering the hundreds of years behind medical treatments and innovation.

We started realizing the need for proper medical waste removal when, in the late 1980s, beaches were being littered with disposed syringes, medications, and other healthcare-related waste. Pretty alarming, right?

The federal government had already established laws to protect our water resources through the River and Harbor Act of 1886 and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, but it wasn’t until 1965 that the federal government made a solid waste management plan. Congress passed the Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA), the first effort to implement a comprehensive management framework for the nation’s solid waste.

But this was an all-encompassing law, and it’s because of the lack of distinction that medical waste started flooding, quite literally and figuratively, our waterways and beaches. It was then that we saw other laws, such as Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), to be implemented by EPA. The goals of RCRA were to protect the environment, conserve resources, and reduce the amount of waste being generated. RCRA gave us the first regulations for the management of hazardous waste. This included the identification of solid and hazardous wastes, standards for generators and transporters of hazardous waste, and standards for hazardous waste disposal facilities.

With illegal medical waste still an issue for the environment, we come to the Medical Waste Tracking Act (MWTA) of 1988, a “United States federal law concerning the illegal dumping of body tissues, blood wastes and other contaminated biological materials.”

It seems rather surprising that it took until the late 1980s to have mandated laws for such a community and environmental health issue, but it was a step that further advanced the Solid Waste Disposal Act.

The MWTA established standards for segregation, packaging, labeling and marking, and storage of the medical waste, as well as record keeping requirements and the institution of penalties for non-compliance.  The MWTA called upon the EPA to examine various treatment technologies that we use today, such as incinerators and autoclaves, microwave units, and various chemical systems to reduce infectious and hazardous waste.

Medical Waste Pollution in the U.S.

According to Greenpeace, 85 percent of the total medical waste stream in hospitals consists of the same mixture of discarded paper, plastic, glass, metal and food waste that is found in ordinary household waste. The remaining 15 percent is defined as infectious, which must be sterilized and treated before final disposal.

An estimated 45 percent of infectious medical equipment from hospitals is already reused through autoclaving. Autoclaving is a process that steam sterilizes infectious waste, and it allows for the reuse or recycling of medical equipment.

Exactly how much pollution occurs in the U.S. is unknown, but minimizing what is incinerated is the goal for healthcare facilities. Medical waste generators can reduce the quantity of PVC plastics, products, and packaging that are going to incineration. Plastics should also be recycled to the maximum extent possible. Aside from autoclaving, other treatment alternatives include hydropulping, microwave, chemical treatment, and irradiation.

While medical waste disposal is primarily regulated at the state level, federal laws have dictated the safety and efficacy of how each state implements waste removal, disposal, and treatment.

For centuries, we have had to deal with the problem of what to do with the solid waste we generate. As technology, science, and public health has evolved, so, too has the knowledge of proper disposal needs.

Red Bags offers medical waste disposal services including biohazardous disposal, red bag waste, and sharps disposal, all compliant with local and federal laws. Contact Red Bags to learn more about reducing medical waste pollution and maintaining compliance with medical waste laws.

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