A recent literature review came to the conclusion that over half the world’s population is at risk from illness caused by healthcare waste and many poor waste treatment practices cause violation of fundamental human rights.
Unlike many other hazardous wastes, there is currently no international convention that directly covers medical waste management, so categorisation systems vary from country to country. However, waste is usually categorised according to the risk it carries. The majority of medical waste – around 75 to 85 percent - is similar to normal municipal waste, and of low risk.
Hospitals are massive resource users, producing tons of waste every day. Waste therefore offers many opportunities for hospitals to significantly shrink their environmental footprint. In Europe, this can be anything from a 75% to 98% reduction, depending on the type of establishment and the scope of services provided. Hospitals can use fewer resources by:
- Minimising or eliminating the generation of waste at the source itself through techniques such as product substitution, technology change and good operating practices. Through procurement and product substitution, toxicity of waste can also be reduced;
- Segregating ordinary waste from infectious waste to maximise the amount available for recycling and minimise the amounts of infectious waste, hazardous waste and low-level radioactive waste that must be treated according to special (and usually costly) requirements.
- Diverting recyclable waste from the solid waste stream, lowering disposal costs.
Only a small percentage of the waste generated by healthcare establishments is regarded as hazardous and may create a variety of health and environmental risks if not managed and disposed of in appropriate manner. Before going to the disposal site, infectious wastes must undergo treatment processes: autoclaving, thermal disinfection, microwave sanitation or incineration. Environmentally sustainable hospital waste management aims to restrict the amount of wastes undergoing incineration.
Medical waste incineration is a leading source of dioxin, mercury, lead and other harmful pollutants that threaten human health and the environment, if best available technique is not used and high enough temperature is not adhered to. From an environmental, health and resource perspective HCWH does not support the incineration of waste. Despite these dangers, many governments, public health agencies, international organisations and transnational corporations continue to promote incineration technologies as waste management "solutions." Fortunately, safer no-burn technologies are available to effectively treat and disinfect medical waste, and a complete phase-out of medical waste incineration is possible and appropriate.