Special Report 49 - Waste Management in Hospitals

Published on 16 March 2005

Summary of Findings

Potentially hazardous waste materials arising from healthcare-related activities — usually referred to as healthcare risk waste — requires special management and the use of costly handling and disposal arrangements to avoid causing infection or injury to those who come in contact with it, and to minimise negative impacts on the environment. Because of the scale and nature of the services they provide, hospitals also produce large volumes of non-risk waste

Historically, small incinerators located on hospital grounds were used to dispose of both risk and non-risk waste. In that context, waste was generally not seen as a significant cost issue or an activity that needed to be monitored closely. Because the hospital incinerators failed to meet increasing environmental standards, they were closed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and attention was given to finding alternative cost-effective ways to treat and dispose of risk waste. Since then, increasing costs and tighter regulations governing waste disposal provide a growing incentive for hospitals to improve the management of all forms of waste.

This examination was carried out to identify

  • the level of output of waste in publicly-funded hospitals in Ireland, and the type of waste produced
  • the costs associated with the collection, handling, treatment and disposal of such waste
  • good practice in the management of waste in publicly-funded hospitals.

A survey of publicly-funded hospitals was undertaken to inform the examination.

Output of Waste

The total quantity of waste produced by publicly-funded hospitals in 2002 is estimated at around 27,500 tonnes. Risk waste accounted for almost one fifth of the total — just under 5,300 tonnes. Nearly all of the healthcare risk waste was produced in acute and maternity hospitals.

Acute and maternity hospitals produce a higher rate of both types of waste per bed day than community and psychiatric hospitals. In general, they provide significant levels of services that do not involve in-patient bed use, including day-case treatment, outpatient clinics and accident and emergency department treatment. They tend also to have higher levels of visiting to patients.

A comparison with waste output levels for hospitals in other jurisdictions showed that output levels were similar for large hospitals but that many small and medium-sized Irish hospitals had significantly higher waste output levels than their equivalents. This suggests there is scope for such hospitals to reduce the amounts of waste they produce.

Some hospitals have adopted strategies designed to prevent waste being produced, such as trying to persuade suppliers to reduce packaging on goods delivered, or to undertake to take back bulky packaging materials.

Although it appears that a high proportion of the materials in non-risk hospital waste could be recycled, the level of recycling by hospitals in 2002 was low. Hospitals reported having had difficulties in finding contractors willing to take recyclable materials, but a number stated that they have more recently started to recycle or increased the level of recycling. While recycling is usually not cost free, it is generally cheaper than disposing of waste at landfill, and some hospitals reported recycling initiatives that resulted in worthwhile savings.

Costs of Waste Handling and Disposal

The direct costs incurred by hospitals in handling and disposing of waste in 2002 is estimated at €13.2 million (or €15.5 million in 2004 prices). While this is small in the context of the overall public provision for hospital services, it still represents a significant cost element for hospitals, and one that may escalate rapidly if not properly managed.

Overall, the direct unit costs incurred by hospitals in connection with the handling and disposal of risk waste were almost six times greater than the costs incurred in connection with the handling and disposal of non-risk waste — an average of €1,430 per tonne for risk waste, compared to an average of around €250 per tonne for non-risk waste. The wide difference in cost underlines the importance of ensuring there is good segregation of waste, so that only waste that needs to be treated as risk waste gets into that disposal stream.

Special colour-coded containers are used in hospitals to collect and transport risk waste, so as to minimise the risks of injury or infection. The containers are not re-used, and are destroyed along with the waste they contain.

On the basis of a comparison of costs across the hospital sector, there appears to be scope for savings in the procurement and use of containers and refuse bags. Even allowing for differences in the nature of the waste being produced, the scale of the variations suggests a need for review in some hospitals.

Following the closure of individual hospital incinerators, the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Health and Social Services in Northern Ireland jointly negotiated a contract with a service provider for the removal, treatment and final disposal of risk waste produced by publicly-funded hospitals on the island of Ireland. Almost all of the hospitals that responded to the survey avail of this service, and pay the same prices per tonne of waste, irrespective of location. In 2002, the average payment by hospitals was around €870 per tonne of risk waste.

Almost all the risk waste from publicly-funded hospitals in 2002 was treated by disinfection at the service provider’s plant, and subsequently sent for landfill. Only around 2% of the risk waste produced was considered to require incineration — this is carried out in Belgium, and costs more than twice the price for disinfection treatment.

Individual hospitals reported payments to the waste contractors that collect their non-risk waste ranging from around €140 to just over €450 per tonne. (Some of the smaller community hospitals had their non-risk waste removed by local authority waste collection services, usually at a considerably lower cost.) The wide variation in the payments to waste contractors reflects the combined influence of a number of factors, including the prices charged at the landfill sites used by the waste contractors, the distances waste had to be transported, and the level of competition that existed between contractors locally.

Good Waste Management Practice

Active management of waste in all hospitals, but particularly in those that deal with large numbers of patients and procedures, will help to ensure that costs and environmental damage related to healthcare waste are minimised, and that patients, staff and local communities are protected from harm. Some good practice ideas already in use in individual hospitals are highlighted in this report to assist hospital and other health sector managers in developing and improving their strategies for dealing with waste.

None of the hospitals or health boards visited during this examination had adopted a clear set of relevant and comprehensive targets for waste management performance. In general, their waste management plans contain little information about hospitals’ and health boards’ performance in managing waste e.g. the incidence of waste-related health and safety incidents, the amount of waste produced, the costs incurred, the proportion of waste recycled, etc.

A set of about twelve key measures could be used by larger hospitals in assessing, monitoring and setting targets for waste management performance. Developing plans that focus primarily on performance objectives and targets to be achieved by stated dates would provide hospital managers with a much stronger focus and incentive for improving waste management in hospitals.

The Health Services Executive has stated that waste management as it relates to environmental protection and value for money is a priority area for 2005. Plans are to be drawn up for putting a robust strategy in place.