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Medical/Hazardous Waste: Yours Until It is Rendered Harmless

Kevin Webber - Feb 26, 2019 10:00:00 AM

Most healthcare teams are keenly aware of the threat posed to humans and the environment by medical and hazardous waste, which requires them to follow certain protocols for its disposal. What you may not realize, however, is that you remain accountable for your waste until the very end of its lifecycle. Called “cradle-to-grave,” this responsibility is one companies need to take very seriously.

shutterstock_103686428What Cradle to the Grave Means

This concept means as the generator of waste, you are responsible for complete disposal of that waste. It also means you remain liable for everything that occurs as a result of the waste, even after it leaves your possession. Right up until final destruction and disposal of residual products, medical waste disposal must be managed according to specific rules and regulations. No time limits exist, there is no expiration date, and hiring a qualified waste disposal company does not reduce your responsibility.

Ways to Achieve This

The concept of cradle-to-grave might sound intimidating, especially when you consider the potential fallout of some types of hazardous waste. There are ways to achieve this safely, however, and options include:

  • Hiring an experienced, full-time manager to control disposal

  • Equipping your facility with the technology for treatment and disposal of medical waste

  • Using mail-back methods to ship waste through the postal service to a biomedical waste disposal facility

  • Contracting with a specialist medical waste disposal vendor to manage the process on your behalf.

The manner you choose needs to be fully compliant with local and regional laws, as well as best practices for waste management.

Methods of Disposal

The main methods used in the United States for cradle-to-grave treatment and disposal of medical waste are:

1: Incineration

This is the controlled burning of hazardous waste in an incinerator used specifically for this purpose. Varying heat levels are applied to different types of waste. Modern incinerators are cleaner than in the past, when air pollution and residual ash were primary drawbacks of this method. Incineration is an excellent waste treatment technology because it eradicates even hard-to-kill pathogens, breaking them down into harmless organic substances and reducing the volume of waste going into landfills.

2: Autoclaving

This method uses sealed mechanical chambers invented in 1884 to clean and disinfect waste with steam and pressure at high temperatures. Autoclaves are used to sterilize items such as surgical instruments and sharps, after which they are disposed of according to standard solid waste handling practices.

3: Mechanical Processing

An automated mechanical method sorts waste, removing and processing recyclable components such as non-ferrous metals, glass and plastic, which are stabilised and then disposed of. The method is also used to grind down solid waste, before adding it to liquid chemicals, microwaving or incinerating it.

4: Chemical Disinfection

Chemical agents such as chlorine can disinfect medical and hazardous waste, rendering most types of liquid waste harmless. The choice of chemicals depends on the types and biology of the organisms in the waste, how contaminated it is, and whether it will mix appropriately with the chemicals. Grinding down solids enables chemicals to reach all parts of the waste. Liquids remaining after chemical disinfection are disposed of through sewer systems, while residue from solids goes into landfills.

5: Microwaving

This fairly new way of rendering hazardous waste harmless goes beyond basic microwave technology. Used correctly, microwaving inactivates biohazardous materials with lower energy consumption than other methods. It’s deployed mainly for waste containing moisture, because the radiation requires water to work. Often, waste first goes through mechanical treatment such as grinding to ensure the pieces are small, and if the overall product is too dry then water is added.

6: Irradiation

Gamma rays and electron beams used in radiation treatments for cancer are fatal to bacteria, so treating infectious waste with radioactive isotopes of cobalt renders it harmless enough to dispose of in landfills or other means.

7: Vitrification

This important step in cradle-to-grave treatment ensures disposal of residual products that can still be harmful to people or the environment. Vitrification combines waste or waste residue with chemicals in a furnace resulting in formation of molten liquid, poured into cannisters. Once the liquid cools it solidifies, stabilizing pathogens in the waste. Cannisters can be stored indefinitely in secure areas without a threat.

After these treatments, most liquid waste is released into sewers and solids to allocated landfills. Maintaining facilities for treatment and disposal is costly, leading to more organizations outsourcing medical waste disposal.

Finding the Solution

Each of the waste management technologies listed has benefits and disadvantages, but the fact remains the waste is yours until it's rendered harmless. This makes it imperative to find ways to dispose of it to reduce your liability and have peace of mind. Download our eBook to determine whether using a medical waste disposal specialist is the solution for you.

Download medical waste handling guide (ebook)


Topics: Regulated Medical Waste

Kevin Webber

Kevin Webber

Kevin Webber is a partner at TriHaz Solutions and actively involved in the day-to-day business from a strategic and operational standpoint. He has a successful background in business/investment management and entrepreneurship, including recognition by Inc. Magazine’s 5000 list of fastest-growing private companies.

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