The management of medical waste is moving into cyberspace.
By 1995, hospital administrators will be able to learn of recycling programs at other hospitals through a computer bulletin board on the Internet, the international computer network.
The bulletin board is the first project of the Healthcare Resource Conservation Coalition, a group of about 60 hospitals, medical product makers and chemical companies. Formed in January, the coalition is meant to encourage talk among healthcare providers and suppliers.
It often takes dozens of telephone calls to discover the hospitals that recycle certain materials and the firms that reprocess the waste, said Terry Hornseth, director of waste management at the Mayo Medical Center in Rochester, Minn., and co-chairman of the coalition. It's the first group to bring together all the parties involved in producing medical waste, Mr. Hornseth said.
"The how-to's of recycling are something we need to be able to share," he said. "The key issue is not to reinvent the wheel."
Coalition members also include 500-bed Medical Center Hospital of Vermont, Burlington; 431-bed Providence Medical Center, Portland, Ore.; 300-bed Vassar Brothers Hospital, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; Baxter International, Deerfield, Ill.; and DuPont, Wilmington, Del.
For hospitals, the management of medical and nonmedical waste is a serious problem. Each year, U.S. hospitals produce about 700,000 tons of medical waste-which result from patient diagnosis and treatment-and 1.5 million tons of additional waste, according to industry reports. It ends up, more often than not, in incinerators and landfills.
Disposal in a municipal landfill can cost from 1 cent to 6 cents per pound, while commercial incineration costs from 25 cents to 30 cents per pound, said Joseph Stilwill, a Boxford, Mass.-based consultant on product packaging. Prices vary regionally.
Waste disposal likely will become more costly and more challenging, Mr. Stilwill said. About 80% of the nation's hospital-based incinerators could be shut down under proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulations (Aug. 29, p. 14).
Yet, fewer than three dozen hospitals run strong recycling programs, Mr. Stilwill said.
One facility that's well ahead of the pack is Mayo. In 1993, it recycled more than 3.6 million pounds of aluminum, cardboard, glass, paper and steel-and made money from its efforts, Mr. Hornseth said. He declined to detail the program's finances.
Another aggressive program involves several hospitals in the Pacific Northwest, including Providence. Last year, more than 3 million pounds of glass, metal, paper and plastic were recycled through the program, called the Olympia Project.
Manufacturers also are struggling to reduce waste.
Two years ago, Baxter began eyeing ways to help customers recycle some pervasive products: plastic irrigation bottles, and intravenous bags and their packaging. It now collects products from 19 healthcare facilities, reprocesses the material and turns it into plastic containers for used needles. Hospitals pay 6 cents to 10 cents per pound for the service.
Plans to offer the EnVision Recycling Program to additional healthcare facilities are on hold while Baxter talks to other companies about recycling more products, a spokesman said.
Meanwhile, DuPont is considering working with hospitals in the Olympia Project to recycle its plastics, said Lori Gettelfinger, a DuPont market segment manager and co-chairman of the conservation coalition.
DuPont's deliberations are one product of the coalition, Ms. Gettelfinger said. "I wouldn't have known about the program otherwise," she said. "Where we can benefit from the coalition is from opportunities to evaluate options. We can contribute our experiences."
Ms. Gettelfinger is the market manager for DuPont's Tyvek, a material used in courier service envelopes and the packaging of many medical devices. About 25% of Tyvek envelopes are being recycled through a DuPont program that's 11/2 years old, she said. Companies mail pouches of used envelopes to five regional recyclers. Reprocessed material can become a number of different products, including construction fencing and drainage pipes.
DuPont now is exploring options for recycling hospital waste and expects to begin a test program in 1995, Ms. Gettelfinger said.