March 30, 2023

The important benefits of healthcare waste segregation

David Williams, Stericycle’s Permit Compliance & Regulatory Affairs Director explains why waste management should never be a box-ticking exercise.

If you’re a healthcare service provider; whether that’s in a hospital setting, GP surgery, clinic, care home, dental practice or even in a veterinary practice, it’s important to know about different waste streams and the regulations surrounding them. 

Why? Well, a large proportion of the waste you produce will probably be classified as ‘clinical waste’. Failing to dispose of that waste correctly could not only mean substantial fines for your business, it could also mean irreparable damage to your reputation and the risk of injury to your staff, patients and service users.

For NHS service providers, the responsibility is reinforced by the NHS clinical waste strategy, published on 7 March 2023, which highlights the need for best waste management practices that reduce waste, improve compliance and provide cost savings. The strategy also details the measures that the NHS should be taking to ensure it can reach its target of net zero for direct carbon emissions by 2040, and net zero for indirect carbon emissions by 2045. It stresses that, ‘All members of the NHS workforce, both clinical and non-clinical, have individual responsibility for managing waste sustainably’.

At Stericycle, we never treat waste disposal processes as a box-ticking exercise. We know that disposing of healthcare waste safely and responsibly has far-reaching benefits for our customers, the communities they serve and the planet we all share. We also know that ensuring the most appropriate treatment and disposal begins with proper waste segregation. As the NHS clinical waste strategy states, ‘the segregation of waste types is crucial to positively transforming how waste is managed, treated, and transported to its final destination’.

Why is segregation of healthcare waste so important and how to make it easier for your staff to get it right

First, let’s consider the types of waste we’re talking about.

Classifying clinical waste

The term ‘clinical waste’ refers not only to needles, syringes and other sharps waste but to any waste produced by a healthcare activity that could have infectious properties or contain hazardous chemicals or substances. It can refer to ‘household medicines’ that are not hazardous, as well as to hazardous pharmaceutical products known as cytotoxic and cytostatic medicines.

Healthcare waste also includes what is usually referred to as ‘offensive waste’: non-infectious waste that doesn’t contain pharmaceutical or chemical substances but is likely to seem highly unpleasant to anyone who encounters it. This might include used personal protection equipment (PPE) or dressings that would not cause infection but may have bodily fluids on them.

Compliant waste disposal can be complicated

It’s possible to break down healthcare waste into seven different categories and each category has a different set of rules for storage, labelling, disposal and destruction, with a coding and documentation system that must be adhered to throughout. This system is written into law through the Hazardous Waste Regulations 2005 in both England and Wales, and the Special Waste Regulations 1996 in Scotland. 

That’s not to say that these are the only regulations that healthcare service providers need to keep in mind. The duty of care for waste, issued under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, applies to healthcare waste and requires waste producers to keep their waste safe, make sure it’s dealt with responsibly and given only to authorised businesses for disposal or recovery. 

Additional rules and regulations are handed down by the Carriage of Dangerous Goods Regulations, which govern how healthcare waste can be moved around. The crucial thing to notice here is that your duty to ensure healthcare waste is handled responsibly extends far beyond the boundaries of your healthcare site.

When it comes to compliant waste classification and disposal, there’s a lot to remember - which is why it can pay to have a trusted specialist partner to lean on - but the primary rule that applies across each waste category is that it must always be segregated into the correct waste stream, and this often happens at the point of care.

Supporting your staff with waste segregation

Getting waste segregation right begins with your frontline staff, so providing them with the right tools and information is invaluable. One of the most crucial tools will be well labelled, colour-coded containers; along with straightforward information on which type of waste should go where. But just giving staff the information once isn’t enough; it’s important to provide an ongoing programme of training, supported by easy-to-understand resources that can be accessed in convenient and practical ways. 

We always work closely with our customers to understand the specific challenges they face when it comes to their waste segregation practices. We can then help them target areas where improvements are needed, implement robust policies across different departments and supply the training materials that will make waste segregation easier for their staff.

We also provide our healthcare customers with access to the Stericycle Healthcare Waste Management e-learning course. It’s CPD accredited and has been designed to help keep your organisation compliant and your employees safe by raising awareness of the risks and penalties of incorrect waste management.

The benefits of effective waste segregation processes

We’ve already looked at how waste segregation can help healthcare service providers stay on the right side of regulation, avoid legal action and remove the risk of potentially hefty fines and reputational damage. But what other benefits does good segregation of healthcare waste deliver?

1.     Improved sustainability

Arguably the most important benefit of waste segregation is that it helps healthcare providers operate more sustainably. 

When waste is properly segregated, it becomes possible to distinguish what can be recycled from what cannot, meaning greater volumes of waste are directed away from landfill, resources are protected, and carbon savings can be made. 

Sustainably treated, single use devices can often be sterilised and prepared for re-use, rather than incinerated, and plastics, glass, paper and metal from sharps and medical instruments, can be separated from other waste and recycled.  

Reduce, reuse, recycle is a concept entrenched within every green organisation. It’s of particular importance for NHS service providers, who have specific NHS England net zero targets to reach and the NHS clinical waste strategy to consider, but every healthcare provider should understand the importance of disposing of different waste types according to the hazard it presents to the environment. We all have a role in making net zero achievable.

To help our customers play their part, we’ve introduced tailored carbon footprint reporting.

The reporting tool can be accessed by regular service customers through their account manager. The results show a customer’s proportion of Stericycle’s Scope 1, 2, and 3 greenhouse gas emissions from managing clinical waste, which in turn helps them to estimate Scope 3 emissions under the category ‘waste generated in operations’ - these are the indirect emissions from waste management services provided to customers, that they are indirectly responsible for within their value chain.  

2.     Better health and safety

Of course, sustainability should never come at the cost of safety - and effective segregation of waste also delivers important benefits for workplace health and safety. 

With the correct waste type disposed of in the right containers, needlestick injuries can be reduced, the risk of dangerous infections and diseases can be better controlled and staff and patients are protected from coming into contact with hazardous substances that could cause them harm. It also means that everyone who handles the waste once it leaves your site is protected. And with correctly segregated waste reaching the most appropriate place for treatment and disposal, we all have an opportunity to protect our communities by protecting land and waterways from potential contamination too.

3.     Significant cost savings

With the capability to deliver such important environmental and safety benefits, it’s good to know that waste segregation can also provide significant cost savings.

The NHS clinical waste strategy draws attention to this when outlining the reasons for implementing 100% segregation of waste as a strategic priority. It explains that this ‘low cost, high impact intervention’ can provide significant financial benefit by reducing waste volumes and enabling more cost-efficient management of clinical waste. When you combine this boost for your bottom line with the other benefits of effective waste segregation, it simply makes good commercial sense to get it right. 

You segregate - we collect - we treat and dispose

 If you would like to discover how your organisation can make segregation of waste easier, why not get in touch today to talk through your requirements. We’re here to help.