Every click of a pipet tip into a biohazard red bag can feel banal. It's just reflexive, isn't it? Who thinks about that tip's final fate?
However back in 1988, biomedical waste was an explosive, national issue. The “Syringe Tide” on Long Island beaches resulted in an “atmosphere of hysteria” according to this NYT article. Eventually, environmental officials determined that rather than hospitals or industrial waste, the beach syringes had been discarded by individual drug users and diabetics. The syringes had fallen from harbor barges on the way to landfills. This was the disgusting image that awakened our national consciousness to biohazard disposal.
Soon after, the federal and state governments produced regulations to keep track of biohazard disposal. This was followed by an Office of Technology Assessment on biohazard waste report to the US congress. Interestingly, it noted that approximately 50% of total medical waste is from non-regulated waste - meaning non- biohazard materials being mixed in (1).
Today, most of the time…to the tune of 1.6 billion pounds per year...red biohazard bag waste is either autoclaved and sent to a landfill, or incinerated, releasing toxic ash and CFC gases into the atmosphere. Safe, but not much improvement on the foul factor, right?
The good news is that there have been some exciting, rationally designed responses to biohazard disposal since the days of the “syringe tide”. On the front end, plastic manufacturers have set goals to reduce the amount of plastic in disposable medical items. See the web site for the HPRC Healthcare plastics Recycling Council On the back end, numerous waste management companies, (i.e. Triumvirate, WM, etc) are now providing green programs where they sterilize your biohazard waste for you, and turn it into raw plastics for re-sale to manufacturers. There are even recycling systems for sharps containers, separating metal from plastic (i.e. Sharps Compliance. The best part is that these green services cost 20 to 50% less than traditional biohazard waste management!
Life science research labs can do their part for the planet...and for their budgets...by promoting a culture that sees the dollar value of plastics. Begin by discarding only the truly infectious, carcinogenic, dna recombinant and sharps materials* in biohazard bags. Follow that by changing your lab's biohazardous waste management system over to a green one!
*please refer to your state's OSHA regulations.
1. U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Finding the Rx for Managing Medical Wastes, OTA-O-459 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, September 1990).