In any given year, vaccines are given out, and needles and syringes have to be disposed of.
But what about this year? How much excess medical waste is created by COVID-19 vaccinations?
In short, it’s a lot.
I talked to Naomi Friesz, a nurse who has been doling out shots on the frontlines since they were made available. She says Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health, alone, has given out thousands, likely tens of thousands more doses this year than any other year she knows of.
So, where does it all go?
“For the vaccinations, what we’re looking at is the syringes and needles are handled as regulated infectious waste,” shared Solid Waste Program Manager Diana Trussell.
Trussell oversees the Division of Waste Management at the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality.
“…So specifically, they’ll typically go into a sharps container,” she added.
This is a statewide policy, according to Trussell.
“If it’s not handled appropriately, we would be putting our landfill operators more at risk,” she explained.
Trussell says no complaints have been made from North Dakota landfills at this point.
Once the sharps disposal containers are full, they are locked up and stored away until there are enough to be picked up on a truck and shipped to the eastern side of the state.
“On a normal basis they came probably every couple of months,” Friesz shared.
She is also the Immunization Coordinator for Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health.
“Now it’s probably been more, every two to three weeks that we’ve had to have them come. And actually, we’ve had them send, you know, like maybe four boxes, instead of just the two that we would normally be sending,” she added.
So, what happens to the piles of medical waste once it’s picked up?
“They’re burned in an incinerator facility,” Friesz said.
“We do have an autoclave in Valley City and what that does is it will render it non-infectious, and that’s through pressure and temperature,” Trussell explained further. “…But also, they need to become non-sharp, so that can happen through grinding.”
“…Then they can be disposed of at the landfill,” she continued. “But typically, a lot of it is handled out of state.”
Ultimately, it’s the same process with the COVID-19 vaccine as any other.
“It works. It’s fine, it works,” Friesz said, laughing.
Trussell says the supply chain is set up to accommodate this large of a volume.
An exact amount increase in COVID-19 vaccine medical waste is unclear right now, but Trussell expects to see a spike in the Regulated Infectious Waste Report for 2021. That will be released next year.
Trussell adds, once these needles and syringes are disinfected and no longer sharp, they are just like any other waste in our landfills. She says although there’s a larger quantity of these this year, they are still small enough not to cause any additional environmental concern.