Coronavirus strains medical waste system

While lots of attention surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is on finding ample medical supplies — ventilators, masks, gloves and sterilized hospital gowns — there is growing concern about its impact on the trash collection system.

Can we safely dispose of the surge in infectious waste from hospitals, first responders and residents?

American hospitals are already generating huge volumes of contaminated trash that needs to be specially treated as the number of COVID-19 infections and related deaths skyrocket. That rapid growth is expected to continue through April.

The coronavirus presents some difficult challenges because it is deadly, persistent in air vapor droplets and remains on door knobs, food and bathroom counters and other surfaces. As we are learning, it can infect people by simply touching their faces. It is spiking the demand for face masks, gloves and sanitary wipes — all of which show up in hospital and household garbage.

Stericycle, one of America’s largest handlers of medical waste processers, says it has seen an influx of masks, gloves and gowns in recent weeks. The company steam-sterilizes infectious trash before it is landfilled or incinerated.

“The U.S. is looking to China, where daily medical-waste volumes jumped six-fold in Wuhan as more people contracted the virus, prompting the government to deploy dozens of portable waste-treatment facilities. Chinese officials recently said medical-waste facilities in 29 cities were at or near full capacity,” Wall Street Journal’s Saabira Chaudhuri wrote.

Waste Dive, the garbage and recycling publication, reported COVID-19 has left the country dealing with mountains of medical waste — much of it has been piled along curbs and roadsides. During the height of the outbreak, Wuhan was dealing with 240 tons of medical waste per day, versus the normal 40 tons.

Safely dealing with medical wastes is not new, particularly in our country; however, volumes are increasing. In 2016, worldwide more than 2 million tons of biohazardous waste was created in hospitals, veterinary clinics and homes, MedPro disposal reported. As China has experienced, that volume quickly explodes — often overnight.

“This staggering amount of waste has to go somewhere, and until recently most of it just went into landfills to be hidden and forgotten about,” MedPro reports. Companies have increased their focus on recycling. Pfiedler, a company that specializes in continuing medical education, is hoping to recycle up to 25 percent of surgical waste.

Meanwhile, lots has changed for workers who collect and process our trash. They require the same protective gear as doctors, hospital workers and first responders — all of which remains in short supply.

While medical wastes are heavily regulated, the situation surrounding the COVID-19 virus changes by the hour. Bob Cappadona, Veolia North America’s executive vice president and COO for environmental solutions and services, told Waste Dive his company is currently dealing with the “known and the unknown,” while trying to take precautions to protect our employees.

“The company which operates worldwide, has experience dealing with outbreaks like Ebola, but Cappadona acknowledged the current pandemic is unprecedented in its scope and impacts.”

While hospitals label and safely store their contaminated waste before disposal, household trash is another concern especially with government mandates for people stay at home. While trash collections from business and construction are down, residential garbage has increased.

With restaurants closed to in-house dining and peopled confined to their homes, drive-thru, takeout and food delivery services are growing. Correspondingly, so is the accompanying number of disposable food containers which are trashed.

While our garbage problems mount as the pandemic peaks, there are three things people can do now: continue to stay home, make sure garbage bags are tightly tied, and thank the trash collectors too!

—Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at