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Sanitary Waste Disposal in the USA

Sanitary waste disposal can be a tricky field to navigate. A lack of knowledge or even budget can impede both businesses and facilities managers, whose responsibility it is to ensure that this waste is handled appropriately. This too often means that disposal facilities are overlooked, with consequences for their employees and the environment.

While regulations regarding sanitary waste in the UK are very clear, this is not necessarily the case in other parts of the world. In the USA in particular, the conflicting information and continuing taboos around the topic means that many washrooms are lacking critical facilities, and are failing to provide a safe and hygienic environment for everyone. 

What are the sanitary waste disposal regulations?

In the UK, sanitary waste disposal is considered a legal requirement, and business owners are expected to adhere to various regulations under three acts: The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992; The Water Industries Act 1991; and The Environmental Protection Act 1990. In the USA, however, there are various discrepancies within health and safety regulations that make it difficult for businesses and facilities managers to create a uniform approach.

For example, even the classification of blood cannot be agreed upon from organisation to organisation. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies blood as regulated waste, as it is a potentially infectious substance. However, the organisation responsible for workplace health and safety standards (OSHA) does not classify blood as a regulated waste, which means in some places, sanitary products may be treated the same as any other rubbish.

In fact, regulations are so vague that although sanitary bins are available to facilities managers in the USA, they are far less common than they are in the UK. Many places either do not have a private disposal facility within the cubical itself – instead offering a wall mounted disposal bin with a lid in the communal space – or do not offer any disposal facilities whatsoever. 

For the public bathrooms that do have some kind of disposal system available, the inconsistent classification of blood means that business owners have no responsibility to ensure that the waste is being disposed of by properly trained personnel. Instead, regular bathroom attendants who may not be familiar with safe disposal methods are left to replace and sanitise disposal bins.

This lack of clarity or responsibility does a disservice to the many people who need sanitary bins, as well as the businesses who serve them. When there is very little uniform understanding of correct disposal procedures, both parties lose out.

What are the consequences for poor sanitary waste disposal?

The impact of poor sanitary waste disposal can vary depending on which facilities are installed. For example, a small foot pedal bin inside a bathroom stall, though not the perfect solution, is far less problematic than one wall-mounted bin with no sanitary segregation. 

As well as inconveniencing and embarrassing people, inadequate sanitary facilities can cause a host of other issues. Improper handling and disposal can put both individuals and the environment at risk, with a potential impact on your reputation and your finances. 

Environmental issues concerning sanitary waste disposal

Perhaps the biggest issue created by poor sanitary waste disposal is the flushing of tampons and other sanitary products. In bathrooms where not even a small, open bin has been provided, women are understandably far more likely to simply flush their sanitary products down the toilet, rather than attempt to wrap them up and find an alternative. This issue is made far worse by the fact that the many women do not realise that tampons, and especially tampon applicators, are not suitable for flushing.

Wherever you are in the world, the environmental consequences of this plastic waste can be disastrous for rivers and wildlife, while the waste can even cause hormonal changes in our food. Though the precise scale of the plastic waste within the USA isn’t known, it is thought that up to 14 million tonnes a year could be ending up in coastal regions alone.  

Because tampons without applicators are still almost non-existent in the mainstream market, tampons make up a shocking proportion of the plastic finding its way into rivers and oceans. With plastic pollution and ‘fatbergs’s making headlines around the world, dealing with this issue has never been more relevant.

Health risks of poor sanitary waste disposal

Despite the name, sanitary bins are not always the most “sanitary” of items in a public bathroom. Luckily, disposal bins in the USA are at least usually lined and lidded, regardless of whether the sanitary waste is properly separated. The problem however usually appears at the cleaning stage, as bins are either only cleaned sporadically or not cleaned at all. This creates a build up of bacteria within the disposal bin that can become extremely harmful to both users and those responsible for their maintenance. 

Because of their constant contact with disposal bins during the emptying process, employees are the group most at risk from harmful substances, especially if the bins are not lined. OSHA even officially recognised that employees and cleaners face a significant health risk from sanitary facilities, with the potential for occupational exposure to bloodborne pathogens such as hepatitis B and HIV.

Though these risks can be (and have been) minimised to a certain extent by wearing protective clothing, bathroom attendants are too often  untrained in how to handle potentially hazardous fluids, putting them at greater risk of coming into contact with them. 

The cleanliness (or lack thereof) of many of these disposal units has also become a contributing factor in flushing menstrual products. When a disposal bin looks as though it has not been cleaned for days, or has an unpleasant odor coming from it, women are far more likely to flush their products than risk exposure to harmful bacteria. 

Is there a solution?

When it comes to sanitary waste disposal, it is vital that waste containing bodily fluids be disposed of separately from general waste, both for hygienic and environmental reasons. While wearing gloves and washing your hands may go some way to creating a safe and hygienic environment, it is not a replacement for trained sanitary disposal, nor the regular sanitising and changing of units. 

Given that the USA is one of the leading manufacturers of feminine hygiene products, and that so many women still rely on disposable products, it is imperative that the country takes the lead on solving the disposal issue. If both women and businesses are to be empowered and assisted, it’s vital that greater emphasis is placed upon proper procedures to best handle this waste. 

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