Getting rid of the trash becomes a complicated proposition when it contains blood-soaked dressings, hypodermic syringes and even body parts.
Hospitals take special precautions with medical waste to protect patients, caregivers and everyone else in the community, says Karen Bartalini, director of general services at Providence Medford Medical Center.
Bartalini says medical waste is separated by categories, and each kind gets its own special treatment.
The simplest nontoxic waste — paper trash, food scraps and things like those plastic thermometer caps the nurses stick in your ear — goes into the landfill just like the ordinary trash we all create in our daily lives.
Waste that could cause a health hazard gets more serious attention.
Take what hospitals call "infectious" waste: stuff such as blood, body fluids and laboratory cultures. Infectious wastes are collected separately and placed inside specially marked plastic tubs that are lined with red plastic bags to prevent leakage. When the tubs are full, they're moved to a biohazard room for storage until they can be picked up for final disposal.
The category of infectious waste also includes "sharps," the catchall term for all needles, blades and other articles that can penetrate human flesh. Bartalini says sharps are collected in their own containers, and then moved to the biohazard room for storage.
Infectious waste from Jackson County hospitals is picked up by Rogue Disposal and Recycling. The trash hauler uses a covered van to haul the sealed plastic tubs, says general manager Wendel Smith. The sealed tubs are hauled once a week to Morton, Wash., where the material is sterilized in an autoclave.
The sterilizer is operated by Stericycle, an Illinois-based company that specializes in processing medical waste.
After the waste is sterilized, it's no longer infectious and it can be placed in a landfill near Morton.
There's also "pathological" waste, a category that includes organs and other body parts that have been removed from patients. Smith said pathological waste is stored in its own separate containers and shipped to an incinerator in Brooks, near Salem.
Waste from chemotherapy, including the bags that held drugs that were dispensed intravenously, also is incinerated.
Hospitals generate large volumes of waste, and the cost of handling it runs high because of the many regulations that must be followed. In 2004, for example, Providence Medford generated more than 30,000 pounds of waste per month and spent about $12,000 per month to dispose of it.
"Basically we're paying by the pound," Bartalini says.
Bartalini says hospitals recycle what they can to reduce their waste-processing costs. Lead (in protective clothing) and silver (in X-ray films) are both recycled, along with materials such as cardboard and high-quality office paper.
"We recycle as much as we possibly can," she says.