In the 1980s, people kept finding medical waste washed up on beaches. And while finding a broken bottle with a bare foot is unpleasant, finding a used needle could prove deadly if the user had a bloodborne illness. Stericycle, a provider of regulated waste management, was born out of the need for proper medical waste disposal. The company’s solutions cover a range of business needs and industries including medical and pharmaceutical waste, compliance training and consulting, safe community solutions and information destruction. They partner with a variety of health care systems, home health organizations and private businesses to help them run effectively with proper medical waste disposal. Cory White, chief commercial officer at Stericycle, sat down with HomeCare to discuss the continued need for proper medical waste disposal, how to implement disposal procedures in the home and the future of the waste disposal industry.
HOMECARE: Why is it important for medical waste to be properly disposed of? What are some of the dangers if it isn’t?
WHITE: Our work is behind the scenes of the health care industry, but medical waste management plays a critical role in protecting the health and safety of patients, health care workers and communities. When done properly, medical waste management can mitigate the spread of infection and help health care providers focus on caring for patients. What’s more, effective, compliance-based medical waste management ensures that regulated waste is treated and managed according to the appropriate regulations to protect people and the planet. It can divert plastic from landfills and keep unsafe medical products like sharps and pharmaceuticals out of waterways. Additionally, it can prevent unused prescriptions, like opioids in the home, from getting into the wrong hands.
Furthermore, Stericycle’s own Healthcare Workplace Safety Trend Report found that about seven in 10 health care providers believe improper medical waste management contributes to their fatigue and burnout and greatly impacts the health and safety of patients. This insight compounds the importance of proper medical waste management.
HOMECARE: Stericycle reported that it safely disposed of 40 million pounds of unused medications in 2021. How can homecare providers ensure medications are properly disposed of?
WHITE: Incorrectly disposed pharmaceutical waste has serious consequences on the environment and community safety. Medications placed in the trash or toilet end up in landfills and waterways, which contaminates essential community resources. If not disposed, medications could end up in the wrong hands, further contributing to the opioid epidemic.
To address this issue, we recommend that homecare workers follow their employers’ waste management procedures, which can include proper disposal of home health generated waste at the health care system. Where this is not an option, homecare workers should dispose of all pharmaceutical waste through a mail back program or a medication collection kiosk. Medication mail back programs allow those at home to ship unused prescription drugs to a waste management company where they can be properly disposed. Medication collection kiosks provide another way to properly dispose of unused medications and can often be found at your local pharmacy.
HOMECARE: Jim Anderson (VP of Product, Strategy and Innovation) recently wrote for us and shared that proper waste management is a health equity issue. Can you elaborate on that?
WHITE: As I mentioned earlier, proper medical waste management is directly tied to the health and safety of patients, health care providers and communities. Our company was founded directly in response to medical waste, particularly sharps, washing up on beaches in the late 1980s. It’s an example of how entire communities suffer when they do not have access to medical waste resources. Another example is pharmaceutical waste. Without proper disposal resources, underserved communities risk contaminating their waterways and contributing to the opioid epidemic.
Patients in underserved communities or at-home settings often have a harder time accessing the same medical waste resources, training, and personnel as better funded hospitals and communities—either due to the lack of transportation, proximity to a pharmacy or shortage of homecare workers. It is critical to equip health care organizations and their communities with the resources they need to ensure equity and protect the safety of all communities.
HOMECARE: Are there any policy measures you’re watching?
WHITE: We’re continuously keeping a close eye on new medical waste regulations, any policies around sustainability, and, for our Shred-it secure information destruction business, any new consumer protection guidance, where we can offer our expertise and leadership. We are closely watching the Extended Producer Responsibility laws, which have been proposed in some states. These laws would require manufacturers, like sharps producers, to remove and manage their products at end-of-life. Many believe these laws will help many industries, including home health care, better manage wastes they generate.
HOMECARE: As more people seek to reduce their carbon footprint, how do you think medical waste management will change? What’s the future?
WHITE: The future of medical waste management is all about innovation. The health care industry generates a lot of waste, and there are significant environmental impacts if it’s not handled properly. Flushed pharmaceutical waste can enter waterways and leach into the surrounding environment. Single-use plastics, which are often used in health care, may be disposed of improperly and end up littering communities.
The primary goal of medical waste management is and always will be preventing infection and keeping people safe. Therefore, innovating and exploring new opportunities to reuse and recycle resources while still maintaining a high standard of safety will be the way forward.
Our product team at Stericycle is constantly developing more reusable waste disposal solutions, seeking ways to convert waste to energy and driving more operational and transportation efficiencies. Designed to meet customers’ needs, we recently launched a new line of SafeShield medical waste containers in different sizes to fit into current hospital and provider workflows. The new containers are exclusively coated with Cupron, a copper-based antimicrobial protectant that can help prevent the growth of bacteria, fungi, mold and mildew. The containers are also reusable, which can help health care organizations using single-use containers positively impact the environment by reducing their landfill waste and reach their sustainability goals.