While health officials insist the general public does not need to wear surgical masks or other personal protective equipment (PPE) to prevent contracting the novel coronavirus, millions have emptied store shelves in search of the gear. But once you’re done with your single-use equipment, is it considered medical waste or can it go out with the regular trash?
“A mask that’s worn by the public is considered to be normal household waste,” Brad Wright, vice president of health care solutions at Covanta, a waste management company, told Fox News. “Post-consumer waste in a clinical environment like a hospital when the PPE like a mask is used and then taken off is typically disposed of within the hospital environment as medical waste, which is regulated differently than normal household waste.”
However, should you or someone in your household contract COVID-19, there are steps you can take when throwing out contaminated products to help keep others safe. Wright said those products include masks, gloves, tissues or other contaminated one-use materials. Bedsheets, however, can be washed as usual.
“Generally guidelines are provided from the communities people live in,” Wright said. “If they’re in the situation where there is COVID-19 in the home, or if the home is in self-isolation from expected exposure, the person should practice proper hygiene before removing the mask, and take the mask off and any other PPE and it should all be placed in a bag. That bag should be tied off and sealed tightly, and put into a more sturdy garbage bag before that material is placed out for pick up.”
Doing so, Wright said, can help protect the workers who pick up the waste, as well as protect others in the household from possible spread.
“We all need to play a part in stopping the spread of COVID-19,” Wright said. “To reduce cross-contamination, clean the handles of your trash bin with disinfectant before and after garbage day. Additionally, double bag your garbage so that the men and women picking up your waste are safe.”
In a medical setting, however, the process is entirely different.
“Health care facilities that have COVID-19 patients in an isolation setting, some of them are segregating the material and making sure that it’s in the proper double bag before its placed in the medical waste containers, and then those containers are labeled as COVID-19 material so that the companies are providing medical waste know what the material is,” Wright said.
“This COVID-19-contaminated material is considered ‘Category B’ infectious substance by the CDC, OSHA, and DOT, and can be managed as other normal regulated medical waste is managed, but some facilities are taking extra precautions to make sure that it is double-bagged and then boxed accordingly and labeled as COVID-19 so that everyone, including the medical waste collection companies and the treatment companies that process the materials, like Covanta, understands what the material is.”
Wright said the material then goes to a waste management facility that is permitted to handle such material. For Covanta, which has three such facilities that are equipped to handle medical waste, the material is destroyed in controlled combustion chambers at 2,000 degrees F.
“At our facilities where we receive regulated medical waste, we have very extensive standard operating procedures to ensure that the material is managed in a very safe manner and destroyed in a very secure manner,” Wright said.
And as the number of cases in the U.S. climbs closer to 150,000, Wright said an uptick in the amount of COVID-19-contaminated medical waste that needs to be picked up is already evident.
“As the virus spreads there’s definitely some potential for communities that may need extra services to ensure all the COVID-19-infected materials are collected and disposed of,” he said, adding that countries like China and Italy also employed waste-to-energy facilities that used high temperatures to effectively destroy the materials.
Covanta is already receiving COVID-19 medical waste at one of its waste-to-energy facilities in the northwest.