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October 2018

Should I dispose of medical waste differently to sanitary waste?

Written by Nathalie Leblond
Cleanliness and Hygiene

Sanitary waste (also known as feminine hygiene waste) is made up of used sanitary pads and tampons and has been the subject of quite a number of our previous blog posts. This is because the hygienic disposal of sanitary waste forms the core of our business, and making sure that it is done in a way that is safe for both our colleagues, our customers, and the environment is of utmost importance to us here at Initial.  

We’ve answered questions like whether your company has to provide sanitary bins for female employees, and in our post Does your company comply to waste disposal regulations? We looked at some of the legislation surrounding the disposal of sanitary waste by businesses.

Whilst the law does not actually specify that employers have to provide sanitary bins, it does specify how sanitary waste must be disposed of in various legislation, including:

  • The Occupational Health & Safety Act, 85 of 1993
  • The National Environmental Management: Waste Act, 59 of 2008.
  • The National Regulations on Health Care Risk Waste (NEMWA, act 59 of 2008)

The legislation listed above demands that commercial volumes of sanitary waste may not enter the general municipal waste stream and that the volume of waste produced by an office or business has to be handled differently.  This is because sanitary waste is a blood product:  it may contain bloodborne pathogens such as HIV and Hepatitis B that could lead to serious health and environmental risks if not disposed of properly.  

If commercial volumes of sanitary waste are dumped at uncertified landfills, or in an untreated state, it poses a significant risk to workers on those sites. There is also the very real risk of groundwater contamination should rain happen to fall on untreated sanitary waste.  Sanitary waste from commercial sites must be collected by a certified waste carrier, who is able to provide you with a certificate of disposal to put your mind at ease that waste is being disposed of according to legislation. 

So what about medical waste? Does it get disposed of in the same way as sanitary waste? Due to the infections and hazardous properties of medical waste, it too poses a significant threat to human health and the environment - in the same way as sanitary waste does - if disposed of incorrectly. But to answer that question fully it’s probably worth first unpacking the term “medical waste”.

The correct term is actually “healthcare risk waste” - an umbrella term  used in much of our legislation, and which is defined as any waste which is produced in the diagnosis, treatment or immunisation of human beings or animals, or waste that has has been in contact with blood, bodily fluids or tissues from humans or infected animals from veterinary practices. It includes:

  • Pathological waste which is further divided into:
    • Anatomical waste:  human tissues, organs, body parts, placentas
    • Non-anatomical waste: blood and blood by-products
  • Infectious waste: non-anatomical waste such as swabs, bedding, bandages, plasters etc which may have been contaminated with blood or bodily fluids.
  • Sharps waste: healthcare risk waste with rigid corners or edges capable of cutting, piercing or puncturing, such as needles, scalpels, razors and pipettes
  • Pharmaceutical waste: expired, unused, spilt or contaminated pharmaceutical products, drugs and vaccines which are no longer usable in human or animal treatment.

Like sanitary waste, when we consider methods of disposal, the distinction has to be drawn between the volumes of healthcare risk waste produced by a private household and those produced by a commercial enterprise. Needless to say that we’ve all - at some point in our lives - thrown a bloody plaster or bandage into the trash without a second thought, or perhaps unthinkingly binned a tooth that our child has lost, or even thrown out an expired box of medicine. But hopefully (unless you are an extremely accident-prone household!) these sorts of occurrences are relatively rare.

But what if you run a medical practice, or have a clinic on your premises? Then the volumes of healthcare risk waste that you produce are going to be substantially larger and must be handled in line with legislative requirements.

The National Regulations on Health Care Risk Waste (NEMWA, act 59 of 2008) and the Draft Health Care Risk Management Regulations, Notice 1113 of 2010 require the correct and proper management of all of the healthcare waste described above; and this includes separation and storage, as well as disposal. Correct separation and storage of healthcare risk waste is a critical part of the disposal process and means having different bespoke (colour-coded), compliant and sealed receptacles for infectious waste, sharps waste and pharmaceutical waste. These receptacle units should be regularly exchanged with stringently cleaned replacements and should be both impenetrable and seepage-proof, with a self-locking closure, in order to minimise the risk of needlestick injury,  contamination or infection.

You will need to find a reputable provider who can evaluate the type of healthcare risk waste that your business produces and then provide you with a tailor-made solution, which includes ‘cradle to grave” waste tracking.  Again, like sanitary waste from commercial sites, healthcare risk waste (or medical waste) must be collected by a certified waste carrier, who is able to provide you with a Waste Tracking document.

The Waste Tracking Document is a legal document which tracks who generated the waste, how much and what type of waste is being handled, and when and by whom the waste was treated and then disposed of. This paper trail – the signing and dating of documents - is critical to the reliable recording of the “cradle to grave” management of Healthcare risk waste, and to put your mind at ease that waste is being treated and disposed of in the correct manner, at the correct sites.  

So in a nutshell, the answer to the question “should I dispose of medical waste differently to sanitary waste?” is no if you are on commercial premises. Both should be disposed of into specific units: FHU’s in the case of sanitary waste or bespoke medical waste units in the case of healthcare risk waste, and both should be collected, treated and disposed of in a specific manner by a registered waste carrier who has the relevant documentation to put your mind at ease that your sanitary or medical waste is not going to be disposed of in a way that puts people or the environment at risk.

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Nathalie Leblond

Nathalie Leblond

Nathalie is the Category Manager at Rentokil Initial, and has worked in the hygiene and pest control industry for 12 years. Although after 12 years cockroaches still have the power to terrify her, she has learnt countless ways to defeat germs both in the workplace and at home. She is a passionate advocate for Global Handwash Day and the health benefits that can be derived from regular handwashing and hygiene practices. When not contributing to the Initial blog, Nathalie is writing press releases for sister businesses, Rentokil and Ambius. You can find her on LinkedIn.

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