How much medical waste is being dumped into the Johnston Landfill? That’s a question that the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources is trying to get the answer to, specifically in regard to used needles, or sharps.
Current guidelines for disposal of sharps require those who use needles at home, like diabetics, to discard used syringes in the trash. Instead of being incinerated, like medical waste from the hospital would be, the sharps make their way to the landfill.
But sometimes, these biohazards make their way to the recycling plant.
Representative Arthur Corvese introduced a bill heard last Thursday that would require pharmacies to provide receptacles for used sharps, or syringes.
Testimony was split over the bill. Some said it was a corporate responsibility to provide sharp receptacles, just like supermarkets provide plastic bag disposal containers. Others said it posed too much of a health risk to bring used needles into a public pharmacy, and also put the cost burden on private corporations.
CVS lobbyist Robert Goldberg, who testified against the bill at last week’s hearing, said he doesn’t feel there is a big enough need for it.
Goldberg is also worried about finding a company that would transport the bio-waste. But his greatest concern was the cost.
“You’re unilaterally dumping all cost on a private corporation,” he said.
Committee member Rep. David Bennett asked Goldberg what the profits were on each syringe sold by a pharmacy like CVS. Goldberg didn’t have a definitive answer, but Bennett suggested using a piece of the profit to pay the disposal.
“If you’re asking us to raise prices on the consumer, I think that should be in the legislation,” said Goldberg.
“I don’t think I’m asking you to raise the price,” replied Bennett. “I think I’m asking you to decrease your profit.”
Those who testified in favor of the bill, like Sarah Kite, director of Recycling Services for the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC), said the current means of disposal for medical sharps is dangerous.
According to the Department of Health guidelines, used sharps should be placed in an empty heavy plastic jug, like an old bleach or laundry detergent bottle. Once full of sharps, the cap should be replaced and taped on with heavy tape, like duct tape. The jug should then be placed into the trash.
But Kite said sometimes the jugs make their way into the recycling bin.
“Here’s where it gets dicey,” she said. “The jug itself is recyclable, but when full, it’s trash.”
Kite said sometimes people get confused, and put the jug full of sharps into the recycling bin, which poses a huge problem to the recycling plant and its workers.
When the jugs arrive, they are rolled around in a drum, and then make their way to the recycling line. As the jugs are moved, they sometimes get crushed, causing the plastic to crack and the contents to spill out.
Kite said the spills cause them to stop the recycling line four to five times a day.
“It happens all the time,” she said. “Every week.”
In prior years, pharmacies participated in the Eureka Sharps Disposal Program, where people could drop off used syringes at their local branch. But when that program stopped several years ago, Kite said the plant saw a corresponding, yet subtle, increase in sharps at RIRRC.
“We noticed we were stopping the lines a bit more often,” she said.
Kite said the change of the system confused a lot of people, especially those who had never disposed of their sharps via the trash.
Two years ago, RIRRC had to stop the line 17 times in one day, although it’s been as long since an employee has been stuck by a sharp.
“The critical piece is the risk to the worker,” said Kite. “We don’t want anyone to be unnecessarily harmed.”
When a stop cord is pulled, all work comes to a halt. A supervisor then dons appropriate biohazard gear and clears all sharps from the area. Each stop can take up to 15 minutes, which is valuable time wasted, said Kite. It also means a lot of overtime. Kite said the stops due to sharps cost the plant about $500,000 in overtime each year.
When the sharps are removed from the recycling plant, they don’t go to the landfill. Instead, they’re placed into biohazard containers and picked up by BioWaste LLC in Cumberland. Each month, RIRRC sends out an 8-gallon container of 18 to 30 pounds of sharps, which contain an estimated 1,000 syringes. RIRRC allots $5,000 to their annual sharp disposal budget but uses closer to $4,000, said Kite.
“It’s not a large cost, and that’s what’s so frustrating – that we don’t have producers of these products stepping up,” said Kite. “It wouldn’t be outrageously expensive to outfit the state with these containers.”
But those who represent CVS estimate their yearly expenses would total roughly $1 million for disposal.
Rep. Laurence Ehrhardt, who serves on the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, spoke about a device that safely stores used needles. The device, about the size of a thumb drive, is called the BD Safe-Clip. It clips off the needle from a sharp and safely stores it inside a container. The BD Safe-Clip can hold 1,500 used needles. The syringes can then be disposed of in the trash.
“It seems like such an easy way to dispose of them,” he said. Ehrhardt recalls a similar bill from last year that did not pass. He said this year they’ve already received substantial pushback from pharmacies. Ehrhardt questions the quantity of sharps that need disposal.
“Most needles are used in a medical environment, like a doctor’s office or a hospital,” he said. “[They] provide for safe stores. So how much of a problem is it at a consumer level?”
Exact numbers of patients disposing of their sharps at home have not been determined. The bill is being held for further study.