Choosing the Right Waste Bag

With the widespread implementation of healthcare waste sortation and waste streaming, choosing the right waste bag has become a vitally important and technically demanding task for organisations generating healthcare waste.

Twenty or more years ago it may have been acceptable to place healthcare waste in almost any available bag or container. If the correct type of colour coded bags were not available staff would often use what was available. The maxim seemed to be ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

Since then a raft of legislation and guidance has been introduced by government healthcare authorities and safety agencies to regulate and control the management, handling and disposal of healthcare waste. Changes have occurred in response to growing awareness of the impact of healthcare waste in a number of areas:

  • Infection control: incorrectly handled and stored healthcare waste can remain highly infectious and be a source of outbreaks both where it was generated and at other locations.
  • Impact of healthcare waste on the environment: traditional incineration based treatments emit large quantities of greenhouse gasses and high risk toxins directly into the atmosphere. Other disposal processes risk leaching and contamination of ground water.
  • Duty of care: waste producers have a duty of care towards patients, staff and the public to protect them from potential harm caused by healthcare waste. This duty extends to people employed at all stages of the disposal process including outside contractors involved in handling, transportation and processing.

Legal Framework

Organisations must now by law ensure that all healthcare waste they generate is processed according to the latest guidance. In the UK this is currently Health Technical Memorandum 07-01: Safe Management of Healthcare Waste. Many other countries have similar legally enforceable codes of practice in place.

The guidance applies to all types of healthcare waste producers including hospitals, clinics, care and nursing homes and local authority and independent care providers. Failure to comply with the guidelines opens organisations and individuals up to prosecution and heavy fines or worse.

Increasing Cost

Cost has become a major factor in healthcare waste management and disposal as new regulations have been implemented. The cost of incineration in particular has increased very sharply as requirements covering emissions and the disposal of residues from incineration have been tightened. In many places this has resulted in closure of local hospital incinerator plants and increased transportation of waste to central processing facilities, often operated by independent specialist contractors.

High costs and environmental concerns have resulted in the development of new processing methods for some types of clinical waste. One such is ‘Alternative Treatment’ which can involve chemical processing followed by deep burial. However, the fastest growing category of healthcare waste in the last 10 years has been ‘Offensive Waste’, the new name for waste formerly known as ‘Sanpro’. Much waste now designated ‘Offensive’ would in the past have been classified as ‘Clinical Waste’ and put through the incineration process.

Waste Stream Management

The use of separated waste streams has greatly increased as a direct consequence of legislative changes and is now embedded in current guidance. Separate waste streams are currently seen as the most efficient way for waste generators to meet the standards required. It is also more affordable for generators as waste is processed according to the required need.

The waste stream management process can only work effectively if waste is accurately sorted and separated. Moreover, separation must be maintained throughout the waste disposal chain, from the generator to the final processor.

Waste sorting and separation has to start right at the top of the chain, when a nurse, doctor, health worker or patient decides to throw anything into a bin. This creates additional responsibilities for individuals, and for organisations which must ensure that staff are properly trained and that the appropriate disposal streams are available in the places where waste is generated.

Organisations are also responsible for the provisioning of the full range of waste bags appropriate for the waste streams in use at every point and in every facility under their control. Managers and staff involved in this process must be fully trained professionals. Running out of one type of bag and substituting a different one is not a mistake to make, given the extremely serious consequences that can follow.

Only by following all these processes can accurate end-to-end track and trace documentation be provided. Leaving any part of the healthcare waste disposal process, including the sourcing, supply, selection and distribution of waste bags, to chance is no longer an option.

Waste Bag Selection

There are many factors which now dictate the selection of the most appropriate waste bag for each type of waste. To choose the right healthcare waste bag you must at the least know:

  • All the waste types being generated.
  • All available waste streams and relative handling, transportation and disposal costs.
  • The selected processing and disposal method for each stream in use.
  • Required colour coding and markings, as specified in the current guidance.
  • Waste volume and frequency of bag fill: high waste volume areas have different needs compared to low volume areas.
  • Change cycles: how frequently are bags changed and who is responsible.
  • Storage requirements and periods: how are full bags handled, where are they stored and for how long.
  • Leakage risk.
  • Weight and volume of typical and exceptional items of waste.
  • Types and sizes of bins and frames in use.
  • Types of dispenser in use.
  • Full details of the handling chain from source to final destination.
  • Transportation needs: waste bag requirements for bulk handling and transport are different from small volume, local handling.
  • Bag storage and distribution: where are new replacement bags kept and distributed to points of use.

There is now a greater choice of healthcare waste bags available than at any time. In addition to colour coding and mandatory markings users now have a choice of different sizes, gauges (thickness and strength) of polythene, gussets, sealing systems, packaging and presentation (flat packed and rolled).

Recent innovations include bags with anti-burst closures (Star Seals) and offensive waste (Tiger Stripe) bags which have the mandatory colour markings embedded in the polythene rather than being over-printed to guarantee better durability and identification.

With such a complex range of demands, the final requirement to operating a successful healthcare waste bag provisioning programme is to partner with a reliable and professional specialist supplier who fully understands the needs of the healthcare waste sector. GV Health have been supplying healthcare waste bags for over 20 years and are among the largest suppliers of bags to the NHS. Our record of innovation is second to none and our range, knowledge and expertise can’t be beaten.