Woonsocket: Stericycle

Providence, RI – What happens to that paper robe you wear at the doctor's office? Or the syringe after your flu shot? Medical waste can't just go to the dump- state law requires sterilizing and shredding it beyond recognition. As part of our One Square Mile: Woonsocket, WRNI's Health Care Reporter Megan Hall found a place that plays a large role in where most of that medical garbage goes.

About 20 years ago, medical waste was just like any other trash- it went to the landfill. But then, something gross started happening on the beaches in the North East.

"Something you could easily identify as something that came from a hospital was washing up on the beach," he says. "So, tubing, syringes, blood bags, and other devices. It really was disgusting."

Bob Vanderslice with the Rhode Island Department of Health says people were illegally dumping trash in the ocean.

People were pretty disgusted, so they pushed for laws to prevent those blood bags and syringes from ever showing up again.

"All sharps had to go in special containers, medical waste had to be labeled as medical waste, and picked up by medical waste transporters," he says. "It could be disinfected and made unrecognizable."

And with those new laws came a new business opportunity- processing that medical waste for doctors offices and hospitals. It's pretty big job.

At Rhode Island Hospital, director of environmental services Roger Durand watches as a man rolls metal racks of red plastic biohazard containers onto the loading dock.

"Right now he's here doing our pick-ups and dropping off some empties," he says. "So what he'll do is he'll go upstairs, grab the full ones and then he's on his way."

Those red plastic containers are full of medical sharps- things like needles, scissors, and blades. Rhode Island hospital fills two truckloads with them every week- a total of about 226,000 pounds a year.

All of those red plastic containers end up here, at the Stericycle plant in Woonsocket. The company processes about 70 tons of medical waste a day, right down the street from CVS's headquarters. Stericycle wouldn't talk to me or give me a tour of the building, but from outside I can see the red containers stacked in a row on those same metal racks.

So because I couldn't check out the Stericycle plant for myself, I turned to Leo Hellested. He heads up the office of waste management for the state department of environmental management. And he's been inside.

"There are staff there with these conveyor systems, unloading them, popping off the lids," he says, "and they're feeding those into one segment of the building and that's where the grinding equipment is."

The grinding equipment shreds the waste into tiny pieces until it looks like confetti. Then it's loaded into big tubs.

"These tubs of ground up medical waste are then put into these gigantic electro-magnetic ovens," he says. "and they're heated up to prescribed temperatures, so they're in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes, and then they come out and they're stacked on shelves."

At this point, the medical trash is so shredded and sterilized it couldn't disgust or hurt anyone if it washed up on the beach. Not to say it will. It actually just goes to the landfill or a solid waste facility.

Stericycle doesn't exactly consider itself a member of the Woonsocket community. When I called the plant, a representative said the company doesn't want anyone to know they're here.

Hellested says Stericycle had some environmental violations in the past- workers packed too much waste in the tubs and didn't always sterilize them properly. But those problems happened more than 10 years ago.

Perhaps the company knows its work is similar to the medical garbage it grinds into confetti- less disgusting if you don't really know what it is.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you. news@wrni.org.