June 30, 2021

Are you segregating your waste properly?

David Williams, Director of Permit Compliance & Government Affairs EMEA at Stericycle clinical waste management specialists, looks at how the NHS can enhance the segregation of healthcare waste and why it is so important to get all those involved in the process as part of the drive towards net zero.
At the end of last year, the NHS announced its plans to be the first national health service globally to achieve net zero carbon emissions, setting ambitious plans about how it will achieve this over the next 20 years.

However despite these big ambitions, new research by the Health Estate Journal has revealed that only just over half (56%) of NHS Trusts are already “working towards a sustainable future” with plans in place. 

With a significant target to meet, the NHS is going to have to pull out all the stops across its entire estate across the country, leaving no stone unturned. One of its greatest challenges will be how it sustainably manages its clinical waste in 20 years, to ensure it has minimized its impact on the environment in this area. Achieving a more efficient waste disposal system for every NHS hospital and Trust is going to be crucial to meeting the overall net zero target and reducing costs for each hospital as well.

It will require everyone from estates directors through to those on the frontline who will be involved in disposing of clinical waste during every working day of the year to play a key role in maximising the amount of waste that can be diverted from traditional disposal routes to drastically reduce carbon emissions. As Inenco’s Beth Goodwin who worked on the survey alongside the Health Estate Journal study above, said: “While sustainability is an initiative placed at the door of Estates Departments, in order to achieve the ambitious targets, set by NHS England last October, all areas of Trusts will need to make changes to drive change.”

Fundamental to best practice and sustainable healthcare waste management which will support the journey to net zero is effective segregation at the point of disposal within the hospital. 

Whilst compliance around waste segregation will have been challenged during the last 12 months with frontline staff under immense pressure as a result of dealing with the pandemic, it will be critical to get this back on course. 

Continuous education of, and awareness amongst, staff on the subject of healthcare waste segregation is crucially important.

Firstly, ensure they know about the different types of healthcare waste that need specialist treatment to render them safe, and which colour coded bags, plastic containers and/or cardboard boxes they need to go in. Secondly, and of equal importance, ensure they know about the waste materials that do not need specialist treatment to render them safe and may be suitable for recycling or recovery waste streams.

Improving education and compliance will lay the groundwork for maximising the capability of future advances in technology that will drive recycling rates through increasing source segregated recyclables and also through post-treatment materials separation. All of this will ultimately reduce the amount of residual waste that needs to be incinerated and landfilled. 

The approach to education on waste segregation is also critical to increasing compliance levels. Keep it varied, fresh and compelling and ensure real-world applications so staff can easily apply what they learn to their day-to-day work. Offer online learning tools so that colleagues can access training at a time that suits them. Make the learning process fun using quizzes and contests. And do not forget to put up signs and posters to help reinforce segregation procedures.

It is also important that Trusts monitor compliance performance with respect to healthcare waste segregation to highlight progress that is being made so that staff can see that their actions are having a material impact on the environment.

The NHS is already implementing successful waste management initiatives such as its plastics reduction pledge. For example, one NHS Trust was able to save 200,000 single-use plastic items from its waste stream in 2019/20; saving four tonnes of waste per year and over £12,000 a year in packaging, delivery, and disposal costs. 

Such an example serves to demonstrate what can be achieved through ensuring the highest standards of waste segregation across the NHS estate. The timing to get staff fully on board with such a process is perfect as the health service is launching its Greener NHS Staff campaign which will see 100,000 of its staff pledge to cut their own personal carbon footprints.

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