Each and every hospital, large and small, rural and urban, can have a positive impact on the public and environmental health of their community through sustainable health care waste management.
As the global health care system expands, reaching more people and offering ever more sophisticated treatments, a silent and largely neglected crisis is unfolding. The ever growing amount of waste that is generated by these lifesaving advances is not being treated properly, causing enormous suffering, pollution, unnecessary carbon emission, and waste of resources.
Incinerator in East Africa
Globally, health care waste management is underfunded and poorly implemented. The combined toxic infectious and other hazardous properties of medical waste represent a significant environmental and public health threat. Scientists (1) have estimated that over half of the world’s population is at risk from environmental, occupational, or public health threats deriving from improperly treated health care waste. As centers of healing whose priority is to first, do no harm, preventing these risks to their community and environment is imperative for health care facilities.
Unlike many other hazardous wastes, there is currently no international convention that directly covers medical waste management, so categorization systems vary from country to country. However, waste is usually categorized according to the risk it carries. The majority of medical waste – around 75 to 85 percent -- is similar to normal municipal waste, and of low risk unless burned. The remainder is composed of more hazardous types of medical wastes, including infectious and sharps wastes, chemical and radioactive wastes, and hospital wastewaters.
Burning medical waste releases many hazardous gases and compounds, including hydrochloric acid, dioxins and furans, as well as the toxic metals lead, cadmium, and mercury. It also releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, worsening climate change. The disposal of biodegradable waste produces greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, which has a bigger impact on the climate than any other gas than carbon dioxide (2). In many countries, the lack of recycling and disposal infrastructure means that waste- including a large percentage of plastic- is dumped, joining the millions of tonnes that annually pollute our lands and seas.
The good news is that solutions exist that can address these problems, and, in doing so, develop and popularise technologies, products and concepts that will help drive society forward to a zero waste, low carbon, toxics free, circular economy.
By reducing and segregating health care waste, health care facilities can reduce their operational costs, eliminate risks to their staff, enhance the local environment and improve community relations.
A large scale rotating autoclave
1. Harhay et al. 2009 Health care waste management: a neglected and growing public health problem worldwide. Tropical Medicine and International Health 14(11):1414-1417
2. IPCC 5th report Chapter 8, p677 https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg1/WG1AR5_Chapter08_FINAL.pdf