Waste companies and hazardous waste businesses have been brought in by government to help handle additional tonnages of clinical waste following the Environment Agency stepping in at Healthcare Environmental.
It is understood that companies including Augean, Grundon, PHS, Stericycle/SRCL, Tradebe and Veolia have been asked to take in additional volumes of clinical waste with some dispensations in terms of licensing and permitting authorised by the Environment Agency.
Messages from government today (5 October) are that the waste involved is not dangerous and that there is no public safety risk in light of media reports about body parts being piled up in waste bins. This comes after national media reported on the clinical waste “crisis”, first reported by letsrecycle.com, with some strong coverage in terms of ‘body parts’ (see Daily Mail) .
The government has said today that: “Anatomical waste is a very small proportion of clinical waste, and the waste stored on sites is not just from the NHS. Where there is anatomical waste the Environment Agency has worked with the operator to ensure it is stored within refrigerated units within the confines of the facility.”
Healthcare Environmental, which employs 450 people and has its northern head office in Lanarkshire, Scotland, and its southern head office near Wakefield, issued a statement yesterday commenting on the situation discussed in government meetings over healthcare waste which it is having to store ahead of incineration in excess of consented volumes.
Healthcare Environmental referenced the market for high-temperature incineration in its comments and said that it had highlighted the reduction in the UK’s high-temperature incineration capacity for the last few years.
A spokesman commented: “This is down to the ageing infrastructure, prolonged breakdowns and the reliance on zero waste to landfill policies, taking up the limited high-temperature incineration capacity in the market.
“Over the last year, this reduced incineration capacity has been evident across all of the industry and has affected all companies.”
The Department of Health has explained that at the end of July 2018 the Environment Agency notified central Government of an issue concerning clinical waste collection and disposal for hospitals and other public services.
It is understood that the primary concern was that too much waste was being held in a number of waste storage and treatment sites by a contractor, now known to be Healthcare Environmental.
The issues raised by the Environment Agency concerned that while the waste was stored securely, it was not being processed and disposed of within the correct regulatory timeframes.
‘Priority for government’
The Department of Health and Social Care, Defra, the Cabinet Office, NHS Improvement and the Environment Agency have worked together to try and resolve these issues with a crisis COBRA meeting held on September 12 and attended by health secretary Mike Hancock. The priority for the government is seen as ensuring measures were put in place so that health Trusts could continue operating as normal should there be any disruption to waste collection and disposal.
The Department of Health and Social Care has also confirmed that it has worked with NHS England to help Trusts put these contingency plans in place.
Sources at the Department for Health have indicated that Trusts are not experiencing any issues with waste collection, but to ensure that no issues arise in the future, contingency plans are ready to be deployed if needed and additional contracts are being negotiated with the waste sector. This would involve temporary storage, treatment and disposal of waste from NHS Trusts, following usual protocols from the Environment Agency.
A government spokesperson said: “We are monitoring the situation closely and have made sure that public services – including NHS Trusts – have contingency plans in place. There is absolutely no risk to the health of patients or the wider public.
“Our priority is to prevent disruption to the NHS and other vital public services and work is underway to ensure organisations can continue to dispose of their waste safely and efficiently.”
“Patients should be assured that their care will be unaffected”Dr Kathy McLean
Chief Operating Officer and Executive Medical Director, NHS Improvement
Dr Kathy McLean, chief operating officer and executive medical director of NHS Improvement said: “The NHS has contingency plans in place for clinical waste and patients should be assured that their care will be unaffected.”
The waste held by Healthcare Environmental at storage and treatment sites remains under the ownership of the company, it is understood with the Environment Agency having made a number of attempts “to get the operator to bring sites back into compliance, including regular inspections, warnings, and enforcement notices.” Further action by the Agency is possible.
And, as a consequence of the situation an urgent review is thought to be underway within government as to the awarding of clinical waste contracts in the future.
Healthcare Environmental’s referencing of incineration in its comments this week come as its considers that because of a ‘zero waste to landfill approach’ generally being adopted in the UK, incineration sites have been processing non-hazardous waste and so typing up capacity which was previously earmarked for incineration only wastes.
Healthcare Environmental, whose managing director is Garry Pettigrew, is understood to feel that it has been unfairly treated by the Environment Agency in terms of it not offering additional concessions to cope with volumes of material that may be higher than stated in permits and licences which is in contrast to dispensations granted to companies now being asked to help handle additional volumes of clinical waste.
A key factor behind the current situation is also understood to centre around the sorting of the waste and rising costs for high temperature incinceration. Traditionally yellow 1100 litre bins are involved with special bins for sharps and these are labelled with types of waste. But, more sorting and separate transport is now being required within the waste sector and some incinerator operators are understood to be asking for lower volumes of plastics waste or cytoxic waste or medicines.