Nurses could help save money and the environment by simply putting rubbish in the right bin, according to new guidance on waste management published by the Royal College of Nursing.
Tons of waste from hospitals and other healthcare settings are needlessly sent off to be burnt or disinfected each year, because it has been wrongly classified as “hazardous”, reveals the guide.
It highlights confusion over different types of waste and calls for better training for all healthcare staff to help them classify waste correctly.
Nurses and healthcare assistants have a tendency to be “over-cautious”, treating rubbish as potentially infectious or dangerous “just in case”, notes the document.
Other issues include a lack of different bins to help people separate waste correctly, or a general “lack of confidence” in knowing what goes where.
“There is evidence to suggest that a large quantity of healthcare waste is classified as infectious when it doesn’t actually present a risk of infection,” said Rose Gallagher, the RCN’s nursing adviser for infection control.
“It should instead be classed as offensive waste meaning it is non-hazardous. This improvement in classification could lead to cost savings and a reduction in carbon emissions.”
An RCN report from 2011 estimated the NHS could save £5.5m a year if 20% of hazardous waste was re-classified as offensive waste, which may be unpleasant but does not pose health risks.
The new guidance features examples of good practice, such as a flowchart used by nurses at Berkshire Healthcare Foundation Trust to help them decide whether something is infectious or offensive waste.
It said waste management should form a key part of staff induction and called on all organisations to appoint a dedicated “waste manager”.
“A large quantity of healthcare waste is classified as infectious when it doesn’t actually present a risk of infection”
For example, Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals Foundation Trust increased its recycling rate from 1% to 60% in two years after appointing a full-time, dedicated waste manager.
The guidance also covers the disposal of waste by community nurses while visiting patients. Some nurses take rubbish away with them but the guidance said ideally it should be stored safely at the patient’s home and then collected by someone else, despite the fact this costs more.
Doing so helped reduce the risk of contamination of sterile dressings and equipment also stored in a nurse’s car, and also meant nurses would not have to dispose of waste in isolated healthcare settings late at night.