It’s easy to imagine medical waste as being needles, pharmaceuticals, bodily fluids, and that pesky appendix. However, with the rise of COVID-19 and increasingly strict guidelines for how to operate during a pandemic, the definition of hazardous medical waste has broadened to include masks, other PPE (personal protective equipment), and even food. The increased use of disposable surgical masks and gloves, including among the general public, is creating an environmental impact.
The Impact of a Pandemic on Medical Waste
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, individual hospitals in China’s Wuhan province generated 44 tons of medical waste per day. At the height of the pandemic, these hospitals were generating 270 tons. In the United States, hospitals generate, in total, over 16 million tons of waste per day. We do not have numbers yet on the impact of the pandemic on medical waste in the United States, but from China’s figures it can be extrapolated that the amount will only continue to rise. Since only 10% is treated using medical waste incinerators, 14.4 million tons of medical waste are finding their way to landfills every single day. The EPA reports that “landfill capacity appears to be sufficient, although it is limited in some areas.” This only applies if we are dumping in landfills at a standard rate. If medical waste is on the rise, as is the waste generated by private homes and businesses, landfill use will continue to grow.
Types of Medical Waste
There are six types of regulated medical waste: pathological waste, human blood and blood products, cultures and stocks of infectious agents, sharps, isolation waste and contaminated animal carcasses, body parts and bedding. Non-regulated medical waste is everything else that is determined to not be a threat if someone were to come in contact with it. As stated above, only 10% of these items are treated using a medical waste incinerator. The rest are treated by autoclaving, irradiation, or chemical decontamination and then sent to a landfill. Organic items, like that appendix, have a very short decomposition time. However, glass, polystyrene foam, plastic, and metal do not decompose as easily. Although organic waste has a short decomposition time, they cannot be thrown into a landfill without first being secured in a container, one most likely made of glass or plastic, creating even more unnecessary waste.
Incinerating Medical Waste Reduces Environmental Impact
Treating medical waste with incinerators is a safe and environmentally friendly method of disposal. Other medical waste treatment options (autoclaving, irradiation, chemical decontamination) leave the waste completely intact. In addition to taking up landfill space, these methods can lead to disastrous effects if not done properly, such as the release of chemical substances and the contamination of water. Medical waste incinerators heat medical waste to an excess of 1,000°C eliminating up to 99% of the material and emit no carbon monoxide.
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