Medical Staff discussing strategy

September 27, 2023

How energy recovery is fuelling a more sustainable future 

Did you know that correctly treated and processed clinical waste can help power an entire NHS hospital’s laundry or in the manufacture of construction materials? 

At Stericycle, clinical waste goes on a specific journey depending on its classification and is recycled or reused wherever possible. This is not only Stericycle’s commitment to protecting communities from harmful waste but also helps pave the way to an eco-friendlier future - for our customers and the planet.

Read on to explore how our Energy from Waste (EfW) processes can treat clinical waste compliantly and sustainably. We also speak with Andy Berry, Stericycle's international senior facility engineering manager, to get his insights into the processes and walk us through how it all works.

Operation of EfW plants

With landfill capacity running low, one way Stericycle is helping to reduce the environmental impact of clinical waste is through our energy recovery sites. These are the facilities where waste is incinerated using technology that converts waste into steam energy - which not only helps to reduce the volume of waste sent to landfill but also provides a sustainable and cost-effective energy source. 

Notably, many of our EfW facilities operate on hospital sites where, depending on location, we work collaboratively with the NHS to power highly-efficient and reliable steam boilers that can generate heat, ensure humidity control in operating theatres, provide essential hot water and power the trusts’ laundry which as you can imagine, plays an essential role in a hospital’s day-to-day operations. Just think of all the regular bedsheet changes!

The NHS has committed to achieving net-zero scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2040, and net-zero scope 3 emissions by 2045. In England, the Clinical Waste Strategy published earlier this year, also introduces various new initiatives designed to help reduce waste and dispose of it safely, efficiently, and sustainably. So how do our EfW incineration facilities contribute to these goals?

Andy clarifies: "Clinical waste is securely collected by HGV vehicles, delivered to our sites, where the waste is segregated and then directly fed into our incinerators. It is then incinerated at a minimum temperature of 850 or 1,000 degrees, depending on the waste type. This process produces hot ash, some of which can be recycled. 

“The entire process of clinical waste disposal is sustainable with the added outcome of generating energy that we feed back into the system. Thermal energy from the incineration process is used to generate steam and hot water which can then be used to heat homes, power the manufacture of bricks and steel or supplied to hospital sites to provide heating and additional services including laundry operations. 

"We take immense pride not only in assisting our customers in diminishing their environmental footprint and helping to achieve their sustainability targets but also in providing a cost-effective contribution back into the NHS estates."

Using alternative treatments

Permitted waste streams including infectious waste, can be treated using alternative treatment (AT) methods. Stericycle’s AT steam disinfection process treats then transforms shredded clinical waste into disinfected, safe materials. This not only ensures compliance with proper waste disposal regulations but also prevents harmful substances from entering landfill.

Andy elaborates: "Stericycle runs six treatment centres across the UK. We collect the segregated waste from customer sites, shred the material, then introduce high temperature steam for disinfection. 

“The end material, called flock, is subsequently processed and classified as non-hazardous material which can be used to make various products instead of adding more waste to landfill sites.” 

The significance of proper segregation

Understanding some of the technological methods employed in compliant treatment processes may seem innovative, one of the most crucial steps is a manual operation taking place at the outset: segregation. 

Customers, especially healthcare providers, play a pivotal role in sustainability endeavours by ensuring accurate waste sorting on-site. Incorrect disposal into inappropriate containers could lead to contamination, undermining the efficacy of our sustainable treatment solutions, or even rendering them unfeasible, potentially resulting in an entire container's worth of waste requiring additional and unnecessary treatment. By diligently segregating waste, our customers directly contribute to a compliant and more eco-friendly waste management process.

Regarding the importance of waste sorting, Andy emphasises: "In addition to being a tale of sustainability, segregation is the critical focus for us all. 

“We encourage our customers to segregate at the source because once the wrong material ends up in the wrong bag, it must undergo different treatment than originally intended, potentially making the process less sustainable. This also poses a significant safety concern for workers at various stages of the process who may not anticipate dealing with items such as clinical sharps that wind up in the wrong place."

Other sustainable solutions

Stericycle's objective is to ensure the entire disposal journey is sustainable, which is why we have introduced our Bio Systems containers for medical waste. While conventional healthcare services have relied on single-use containers, our UN-approved puncture-resistant solution can be reused up to 600 times after thorough washing and disinfection. 

In just the past 18 months, these containers have aided our customers in diverting nearly one million containers from incineration and landfills. Additionally, they have prevented the production of almost 1,800 tonnes of plastic and the release of over an impressive 5,000 tonnes of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Andy adds: "Achievements gained through our Bio Systems containers underscores that even small changes can exert a substantial impact on waste management, sustainability and can help NHS providers drive forward new initiatives to help them meet NHS clinical waste strategy targets."

Towards a greener future: Our Carbon Reducton Plan and ongoing enhancement

Our commitment to sustainability includes looking to the future. Through our comprehensive UK Carbon Reduction Plan, we are actively committing ourselves on a journey alongside the NHS and the UK's net zero objectives. By consistently innovating and enhancing our processes, we strive to deliver on our brand promise “Protect What Matters” by recognising the threat climate change poses.

Andy notes: "As part of this effort, we can furnish our customers with scope 1 and 2 emissions data, which they can incorporate into their sustainability targets. With EfW, we can channel energy back into the hospital sites, helping to save the hospital substantial costs by curbing gas consumption originating from clinical waste."

As technologies advance, new opportunities arise to refine sustainable waste management solutions further.

Andy adds: "We are continually exploring other technologies and options to recover more materials from our existing treatment processes. This includes improving our steam injection system, collaborating with third parties to enhance plastic and metal sorting from our processes, and finding additional avenues to recycle and repurpose materials. Our endeavour is to continuously seek ways to recycle and repurpose the materials we process."

Championing sustainable waste management

Through our advanced waste treatment processes, initiatives for proper segregation, adoption of reusable solutions, and unwavering commitment to ongoing improvement, we are forging a path toward a world where waste is not simply managed but rather transformed into valuable resources.

Contact us today to explore how we can contribute to rendering your medical and specialist waste journeys more sustainable.