Solving the problem of sharps in recyclables

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While disposal of sharps (used syringes, needles, and lancets) at hospitals and other healthcare facilities is highly regulated, sharps disposal by consumers is largely unregulated and has become a major concern for recycling operations. Three percent of the United States population (approximately 9 million people) self-inject medications outside of healthcare settings, producing some three billion syringes that are discarded each year.

Needle Sticks

Sharps, when improperly discarded in household recyclables, can present the risk of injury and disease to community residents and employees, including those who work in waste collection, recycling and landfills. Disease-causing pathogens carried on used needles and syringes can expose workers to diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and syphilis. Since the source of needles found in the trash or recycling is unknown, needlesticks can mean lengthy testing and post-exposure medication for the injured worker to reduce the risk of disease transmission – all at great expense. In addition, employee needlesticks and any resulting disease transmission must be documented on OSHA recordkeeping forms. Clearly, it is a major concern for both recyclers and for state and local governments to reduce the risk of injury and infection to employees at landfills, MuRFs and trash-sorting facilities from handling used sharps.

National and state standards

There is no national standard on sharps disposal by self-injectors. Until 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advised home-injectors to put syringes into plastic bottles and dispose of them in the household trash. These sharps-filled containers often ended up in recycling, broke open and created potential disease exposure. Given the scope of such problems, the updated EPA guidance recommended solutions such as using government-approved systems to mail sharps for proper disposal, or physically taking used sharps to approved disposal centers.

Seven states now have laws or regulations restricting consumer disposal of sharps. For example, Louisiana prohibits any person from knowingly placing home-generated sharps waste in any container used for household or commercial collection of trash or recyclables. Massachusetts prohibits needles, syringes and sharps containers specifically from recycling as well as the solid waste stream. Oregon and Wisconsin have forbidden the disposal of sharps into household waste, which would include recycling, for more than a decade.

The California Medical Waste Management Act addresses biohazardous waste and sharps waste generated in a wide range of activities. It specifically prohibits the disposal of home-generated sharps into the solid waste, recycling, green waste or business waste streams. California legislators are now considering SB 486, which would require pharmaceutical manufacturers that sell or distribute medication that is self-injected at home to submit plans by July 1, 2010 to offer patients safe needle collection and destruction. Even states without laws still provide guidance against placing sharps into the recycling. For example, in New Jersey, sharps may be disposed of in the trash if properly sealed in rigid containers with warning labels, but may not be disposed of in recyclables. However, as guidance only, it may not always be effective. Sharps still remain an identified hazard for MuRF employees across the country.

Disposal by mail and take-back solutions

In addition to laws restricting trash disposal… convenience, cost, and education, as well as other issues play a part in how self-injectors choose to dispose of their used sharps. California and other states acknowledge disposal by mail and take-back programs as being among the most effective strategies for consumer sharps disposal. This method was used for an innovative program in which Cathedral City, California became the first city in the nation to help residents dispose of used sharps with a disposal-by-mail program.

Dr. Burton J. Kunik is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Sharps Compliance Corp., a leading provider of cost-effective disposal solutions for medical and pharmaceutical waste generated outside the hospital setting, www.sharpsinc.com. Dr. Kunik can be reached at 713-432-0300 or bkunik@sharpsinc.com.

Now in its fourth year, the program in 2009 received a special award from the California Resource Recovery Association. Participants receive from local pharmacies a specially designed, mailable sharps container with a shipping box, protective bag liner, complete instructions, a simplified tracking form and free postage for mailing to a fully permitted treatment facility where the containers and sharps are responsibly destroyed. By participating in the program, approximately 1,400 Cathedral City residents who self-administer medical injections have prevented more than 480,000 used needles and syringes from potentially ending up in MuRFs or local landfills.

Given the extensive regulation of disposal and recycling for car batteries, oil and tires, it is inevitable that more state and federal restrictions will be imposed on used syringes, which could cause life threatening illnesses.

Recyclers should consider supporting disposal by mail and take-back programs as methods of dealing with sharps before they enter the recycling container.