January 24, 2024

Transforming medical waste into sustainable solutions: Spotlight on Energy from Waste

Our commitment to environmental sustainability, protecting the health and wellbeing of the people and places around us is embedded in our core values. 

Globally in 2022, we treated 680 million kilograms of medical waste helping to protect the public from potentially harmful materials; helped our customers divert 46 million kilograms of plastic from landfills through Bio-Systems reusable sharps containers; and treated 17 million kilograms of pharmaceutical waste helping to keep active pharmaceutical ingredients out of our waterways.

Although we think these figures are impressive, there’s more to do. We’re also aware that sharing numbers like this can sometimes be overwhelming. That’s why we’re launching our Spotlight on Sustainability series. We want to tell the stories behind our environmental numbers – what is driving them and what are we actually doing to become more sustainable.

First up, is our Spotlight on Energy from Waste (EfW) treatment process. What is it? How does it benefit the environment? And what does it mean for our customers’ sustainability journey and helping to meet NHS provider targets?

What is Energy from Waste?

EfW is an advanced process that revolutionises the disposal of medical waste. At Stericycle, our approach involves careful waste segregation by our customers, followed by secure collection and transportation to our specialised treatment facilities. Once there, the waste is incinerated at minimum temperatures of 850° or 1,000° degrees, depending on the waste type. This creates thermal energy which is used to generate steam and hot water which can then be supplied to hospital sites to provide heating and other services like laundry operations.

How does EfW make us more sustainable?

EfW not only helps to address energy and landfill challenges but in doing so, aligns with wide ranging sustainability targets and economic efficiencies.

For us, becoming more sustainable is about how we can help contribute to our own and our customers’ sustainability. EfW is a perfect example of a treatment solution that  promotes compliance and sustainability.

By generating thermal energy from clinical waste, our EfW facilities decrease our reliance on fossil fuels. This means we can use and provide customers with cleaner, renewable. EfW can also be applied to carbon reporting schemes, so can be used by clinics, hospitals, and businesses to report their carbon footprint and sustainability progress.

Another way the process benefits our plant is by mitigating the environmental impact of landfills – in doing so, reducing methane emissions and curbing the expansion of these sites. This is because some the medical waste that’s incinerated might otherwise go to landfill. For customers, this provides a critical step towards sustainable waste management goals.

Stericycle’s EfW process also enables resource recovery. When the waste is incinerated at high temperatures, incinerator residues of bottom ash and lime are produced at approximately 10% of the original volume of waste. The good news is, the resulting bottom ash and waste lime are classed as recycled materials and collected from our facilities for reuse, thus entering the circular economy. Lime could be reprocessed and returned to the cycle, or the ash materials could be repurposed for the building and construction sectors, and even used as filler in roads.

The thermal energy recovered from the incineration is channelled back into the system, providing steam and hot water for various applications, like heating hospitals to powering services like laundry operations.

What does this mean for sustainability?

Our EfW facilities play a vital role in helping to reduce the environmental impact of clinical waste. Many incineration facilities operate without energy recovery so our EFW sites, where waste is converted into steam energy, provide a sustainable and cost-effective energy source.

Many of our EfW facilities operate on hospital sites, aligning with the NHS's vision: to deliver the world’s first net-zero health service. By contributing to the generation of heat, electricity and essential, everyday operational activities within hospitals, these efforts are a hugely important part of our broader sustainability initiatives.

The process also works in support of effective recycling.  Segregating waste correctly and optimising appropriate treatment processes diverts relevant materials to be managed higher up the waste hierarchy, while creating energy out of residential waste. 

Alex Fisher, Operations Director, Stericycle, said: “By collaborating with our customers and partners, we are actively helping our customers to remain compliant and save costs from the reusable energy we generate. As we move forward, our commitment to sustainable  stewardship remains unwavering, driving us to explore even more innovative solutions for the benefit of our planet and communities.”

Stay tuned for the next instalment of our Spotlight on Sustainability series, where we’ll deep-dive into more of the ways Stericycle is becoming more sustainable – while continuing to prioritise safe and responsible disposal.

For more information on our sustainability commitments, click here.