April 19, 2021
On April 22, 2021, the world will once again celebrate Earth Day. This year’s theme, “Restore Our Earth,” focuses attention on climate change and the critical work that must be done to safeguard the health and well-being of our planet. Various events and activities are planned to raise the profile of environmental issues, presenting the opportunity for all of us to better understand our own ecological impact.
Hospitals, long term care facilities, ambulatory clinics, and other healthcare organizations generate thousands of tons of waste annually. With the challenges of COVID-19, including testing, treatment and vaccination efforts, medical waste management has become even more complex.
Healthcare organizations can inadvertently cause harm to surrounding land areas, waterways and communities, and increase the volume of waste heading to landfills if they do not have proper waste management procedures to safely handle and dispose of potentially infectious materials, contaminated sharps, unused medications, hazardous chemicals, and chemotherapeutic waste. In addition, healthcare organizations are often housed on large campuses that, like other businesses of similar size and scope, can have a significant ecological footprint. In fact, according to Health Care Without Harm, healthcare is responsible for 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. For these reasons and more, it is essential that healthcare organizations embrace a sustainability mindset and actively look for ways to reduce their environmental impact.
From a waste management standpoint, Stericycle can help healthcare organizations become more eco-friendly. Our reusable containers, for example, ensure safe and secure disposal of sharps or pharmaceutical waste while limiting the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills, diverting 104 million pounds of plastic in 2020.
Our pharmaceutical waste solutions facilitate proper disposal of unused medications, keeping 40 million pounds of unused pharmaceuticals from entering waterways in 2020. Our controlled substance waste containers can neutralize opioids and other narcotics, preventing drug diversion and mitigating environmental risk. We also have mail back envelopes and drug take back kiosks for organizations to provide to patients, so they can safely send back or drop off any unused medications, reducing the chances that dangerous drugs will end up in the wrong hands, in the trash, or down the drain.
In addition to supplying the right equipment to enable safe disposal, we also remove, transport, and treat all types of medical waste. Regulated medical and hazardous wastes require special treatment because of the potential for viruses, chemicals, and other contaminants to cause harm to people and the environment. Depending on the type of waste, treatment may involve autoclaving or incineration when required or recommended. Once treated, it is sent to a landfill or a waste-to-energy facility, which offers additional environmental benefits. In 2020, we treated 1.5 billion pounds of medical waste protecting people and the planet from potentially infectious materials.
Although we have always been committed to helping healthcare organizations make their waste management programs more sustainable, we have redoubled our efforts during the pandemic. Our medical waste facilities have remained open and operational to provide essential services to hospitals, quarantine locations, testing sites, and temporary treatment centers with safe, compliant medical waste disposal. We have also remained in constant communication with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on how best to handle and treat COVID-19 waste, adjusting our procedures as needed to protect healthcare workers, our staff, and the environment. In addition, our team has been involved in the planning for vaccine distribution, ensuring that proper sharps disposal was considered as part of the deployment plan. In anticipation of greater demand for medical waste disposal solutions, we have ramped up production of sharps disposal mail back kits by 200% and increased our inventory of reusable sharps containers to 3.5 million.
Besides helping healthcare organizations with their sustainability efforts, we also strive to reduce our own environmental footprint. Several Stericycle treatment facilities are classified as waste-to-energy facilities, which use the latest technology to treat the waste and convert it into clean electricity that can be used as fuel for power generation and other industrial processes. Additionally, the waste-to-energy process reduces the amount of waste that is sent to landfills for disposal.
Within many of our facilities, high-efficiency, motion-sensing lighting, and energy efficient HVAC systems curb electricity consumption. We are leveraging existing steam energy in cleaning processes, recovering heat energy during incineration, and reusing heat from autoclaving to cut our reliance on fossil fuels in some of our facilities. Additionally, some of our locations leverage wastewater treatment methods and specially designed scrubbing technologies work to minimize the amount of water we use.
In addition, we are exploring ways to safely increase the number of stops per route, translating into fewer total routes and trucks on the road, fewer miles driven, and lower maintenance costs.
Organizations’ sustainability efforts should go beyond just Earth Day and extend to a commitment to focus on environmental issues throughout the year. A key strategy to consider involves creating a committee to guide the work. This group may start by assessing current waste management programs, reviewing recycling initiatives, and exploring opportunities to trim natural resource consumption and decrease environmental impact. Stericycle stands ready to help with these efforts, partnering with healthcare organizations of all types to improve their sustainability and nurture a healthy, thriving planet.