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How is Coronavirus Impacting the Clinical Waste Industry?

13 May 2020


What happens to single-use medical equipment after it has been used? How do the healthcare and waste management sectors ensure that waste does not further spread the infection to others? In this blog we look at what defines clinical waste and the measures that have been put in place to assist the clinical waste industry through this pandemic.

What is clinical waste?

Clinical waste is defined in the ‘Controlled Waste Regulation 1992’. It refers to waste produced from healthcare and other similar activities that have the potential to cause risk of infection (e.g. bandages and dressings) or to be hazardous (e.g. medicines).

The correct management of clinical waste is vital. If this type of waste is not disposed of properly it can pose threat to human health or the environment.

There are four categories of clinical waste in the UK:

  1. Infectious;
  2. Sharps;
  3. Anatomical;
  4. Medicine (redundant).

Each of these must be stored in separate, appropriately labelled containers and there are stringent rules in place for its transportation.

The collection of clinical waste is carried out by private authorised waste contractors. They will either transport the waste directly to a permitted facility that can ‘render it safe’ where it is then incinerated or heat treated. Or, they can transfer the waste to a permitted ‘transfer station’ where it is stored for a set amount of time before being sent to a facility that will treat or destroy it. It is down to the Environment Agency to ensure this process runs smoothly by ensuring waste companies comply with the conditions of their permits. (The Guardian).

How is the clinical waste industry coping with Coronavirus?

With extra demand due to the recent COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak, it is likely for the clinical waste industry to be under increasing strain.

Guidance has been produced and distributed to make sure healthcare facilities and waste management contractors are dealing with coronavirus waste appropriately. Along with this, extra capacity is being created where possible to help treat the increased amount of clinical waste.

According to the Sanitary Medical Disposal Services Association (SMDSA), older facilities that are capable of treating medical waste will be utilised, and new facilities will be opened earlier than planned to help to deal with the increased demand.

Since there will be a slowdown in commercial and industrial waste, due to shops, factories and businesses shutting, there might also be capacity for other parts of the waste sector to assist with clinical waste (ENDS Report).

In the ENDS Report on clinical waste and coronavirus it was stressed that even with enough waste disposal/treatment capacity, there may not be enough drivers available for its transportation. This is due to large numbers of the public self-isolating. Coronavirus testing has now been extended to all essential workers in England, including those in the waste sector. This should enable workers who do not test positive for the virus to return to work more quickly.

This standard operating procedure document has been created by NHS England to document the waste management approach for all healthcare facilities in England and Wales. It aims to ensure waste is managed in a safe manner. The SOP outlines waste streams and routes to ensure that waste treatment facilities can identify and treat in the correct and safest manner (Circular). Waste producers must make sure that any COVID-19 waste is packaged in UN approved containers. These must be sealed and marked correctly (Stericycle).

DEFRA have also released some guidance for local authorities on the prioritisation of waste collection.

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