The words conjure up disturbing images: needles washed onto beaches, germ-laden trucks overturned on highways, a noxious aura enveloping the South Lake Michigan Industrial Park, where Stericycle Inc. has proposed building a medical waste processing facility.
Company officials sought to allay such fears this week, meeting with City Council members, residents and the media for the first time since the company’s plans were made public last month.
In meetings Monday, Stericycle founder and vice president Dr. James Sharp told listeners that Stericycle’s concept — disinfecting and recycling medical waste — is an idea whose time has come.
A physician who ran a laboratory several years ago in Arlington Heights, Ill., Sharp says he was disturbed by the haphazard techniques used to dispose of medical waste. Blood was poured down the drain into the sewer, he said, while an incinerator burned high-grade plastics and belched black smoke.
“It was clear to me that a better way was needed to deal with medical waste,” he said. Thus evolved Stericycle Inc., the only medical waste processing company in the nation that does not incinerate, according to Stericycle Vice President Linda Lee.
The company now operates two plants: one in West Memphis, Ark., and one that opened two weeks ago in Morton, Wash. Meanwhile, plans are under way for many more facilities: in Rhode Island, New York, South Carolina and elsewhere. Several are planned for the Midwest: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois — and Michigan City.
According to Sharp, Lee and documents filed with the state, the local plant would operate as follows.
Between four and six trucks would arrive at the Michigan City plant each day, carrying waste from hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and dentists throughout Indiana. Initially, Sharp has said, the plant also may process waste from Chicago-area hospitals, unless the company builds a plant first in Wisconsin. She said regulations are being changed in Illinois to allow for a plant there as well.
The trucks would travel via Interstate 94 and exit north on U.S. 35 to Indiana 212. From there, they would go north to Mariner Drive, west and then north on Anchor Road.
The trucks would be “received” by a plant coordinator, who would weigh each container within the truck. Since the average medical waste container weighs 3.5 pounds per cubic foot, containers that weigh more would be set aside and “investigated” by supervisors. Those containing unacceptable material — radioactive or chemical materials, anatomical waste or laboratory animals — would be returned to the source.
Much of the material would arrive in sturdy plastic containers that officials say are impervious to needles and spills. But some of it, Lee acknowledges, may arrive in less-durable cardboard shipping boxes. That material would be processed with the rest of the infectious waste.
All of the material would then be shredded. It would then be dumped into insulated containers, which would undergo a sterilizing process similar to microwaving. The material would be heated to about 200 degrees for about two hours, which officials say is sufficient to kill all bacteria. Blood is included in the process and gets “sopped up” by the porous plastics, Sharp said.
Once the sterilization process is complete, says Sharp, “it’s perfectly safe to stick your hand in there.”
The material then would be separated into various parts. Plastics would be ground into pellets, which Stericycle recycles into recycling tubs, plastic bags and needle receptacles. The company is seeking uses for the metallic portion, which could be used as landfill cover or roadbed stabilizer, Lee said. And another portion may be used in concrete kilns as a coal substitute.
The remaining “1 or 2 percent” would need to be landfilled, Lee and Sharp say. Although the permit application specifies that the waste would be dumped in the Gary Sanitary Landfill, the pair says the company would not use an Indiana landfill for its waste. Sharp added that “we can absolutely tell you we’re not going to use the (LaPorte County) landfill.”