Clinical energy: Ace Waste

Ace Waste is ramping up efforts to encourage best practice clinical waste management across the broader health care sector, including pharmaceuticals. 

In the mid ‘80s, John Homewood had the foresight to predict changes in the medical waste disposal sector. 

In 1987, John saw a gap in the clinical waste collection and disposal service market and looked to reshape the landscape.

“In those days AIDS and hepatitis were becoming an issue and I could foresee that at some point, but I didn’t know when, that attitudes on clinical waste landfilling would change,” John says.  

While the tide had yet to turn on attitudes towards incineration, John established Ace Waste and proposed constructing a modern incinerator and air pollution control system that could safely destroy clinical wastes, including cytotoxic, pharmaceutical, human tissue and laboratory waste. 

John says it was the largest high temperature incinerator built in in Australia at the time, located in Willawong, Brisbane and completed in 1993. 

“It was pioneering work. I did a lot of overseas travel through Europe, Japan and the US where we looked at the various types of incinerators. 

“We selected a pyrolytic type, a gasifier, as it was more environmentally friendly and utilises the high-energy plastic in clinical waste.”  

More than 30 years on from its establishment, the company’s vision – to protect Australia’s environmental future through safe and reliable collection and disposal services – remains a priority. Understanding that landfill will at times be essential, Ace Waste aims to find sustainable alternatives that will safeguard the ecosystem into the future. 

“The long-term environmental impacts on marine life, waterways and natural fauna and flora from incorrectly disposed wastes will be extremely detrimental,” John says.

“Not enough care and attention has been placed on the correct segregation of pharmaceutical wastes and as such authorities are allowing these materials to be incorrectly treated and disposed of, with risks to the environment and waste generators.”

For these reasons, Ace Waste hopes to educate hospitals on the repercussions of incorrect clinical waste segregation. 

“You’ve got pharmaceuticals from patient treatment in sharps, tablet vials and if it’s going to a treatment landfilling option, then by law, pharmaceuticals must be segregated,” John says. 

“It’s a very difficult job to put onto healthcare operatives. They’re paid to look after patients and not to segregate waste.”

In addition to its incinerator in Willawong, Brisbane, Ace Waste expanded its business in 2006 with the acquisition of a five-hectare site in Dandenong South, Melbourne, and set about building a modern high temperature incinerator, completed in 2009.  

In Australia, clinical and related waste must be treated prior to final disposal. The waste must be rendered non-hazardous and non-infectious and disposed of safely. 

According to an EPA Victoria operational guidance document on clinical waste, methods other than incineration are only suitable for treating some clinical wastes. 

John says that it is therefore essential that pharmaceutical, cytotoxic and other related wastes are segregated at their source and not treated via an unapproved process. He says generators must also ensure that all waste types are only sent to licensed facilities for their streams. 

“Healthcare professionals have a duty of care to make sure they’re not sending an inappropriate material to an unlicensed facility, whether they are a doctor, dentist or employed at a medical clinic or hospital,” he says.

One of the key issues with pharmaceutical waste, John says, is that it is often caught up in the clinical waste stream as it is commingled. 

“The disposer of the material should be taking steps to ensure that residual pharmaceuticals that can’t go to landfill are separated out, and that means giving the generator a separate bin and training them to pull pharmaceuticals out.” 

Fortunately for Ace Waste, incineration is its method of disposal so the pharmaceutical waste can be commingled. The company has conducted a number of audits over the years and found pharmaceutical waste prevails in the clinical waste stream.

“Clinical waste is energy rich and best directed toward high-temperature incineration. It also eliminates the need for segregating the inherent and residual pharmaceutical waste in clinical waste.”

Ace Waste incinerates clinical and related waste at 1100 degrees Celsius, effectively converting more than 90 per cent of it into water and carbon dioxide. 

John says that in Victoria, most clinical and related wastes are treated and landfilled. 

He says that as a means of comparison, clinical waste has 28 megajoules of energy per kilogram, while coal has 32, making it comparable to fossil fuels. About 30 per cent of clinical waste is plastic, which has 46 megajoules of energy per kilogram, demonstrating clinical waste is a rich source of energy. John says that out of the seven grades of plastic, six are polypropylene and polyethylene based which oxidise to carbon dioxide and water through incineration. 

He says that it’s also a clean form of combustion. In addition to disposing of clinical waste, Ace Waste runs its own fleet of 23 vehicles, providing a cradle to grave service. 

Clinical and related waste containers are provided to customers for safe and secure collection, storage and transportation. 

“From the point of collection there is a chain of responsibility of guaranteed destruction,” he says. 

“By utilising approved complete destruction methods, the long-term environmental impacts of waste disposal greatly diminishes, especially for commingled clinical and pharmaceutical wastes.”