"Sharps waste" is a type of "hazardous waste" defined in the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 (POEO Act) and detailed in the Environmental Guidelines: Assessment, Classification and Management of Liquid and Non-Liquid Wastes (Waste Guidelines - EPA 1999).
Needles, syringes, lancets and other community sharps resulting from self‑injection in public places or on private premises do not fall within the definition of sharps waste because they are not generated by one of the listed activities.
This means that the generation, storage and transportation of community sharps is not subject to licensing under the POEO Act, or to control under clauses 16 and 17 of the Protection of the Environment Operations (Waste) Regulations 1996.
Community sharps generated at residential premises or in public places as a result of self‑injection are specified as "municipal waste", which is a type of "solid waste" pursuant to Schedule 1 Part 3 of the POEO Act. Municipal waste is generally the responsibility of local councils.
Although disposal of community sharps to household waste bins, public litterbins, and solid waste class 1 landfills is not prohibited under the POEO Act, it does not represent 'best practice' management.
This is primarily because of workplace health and safety issues for council employees, waste contractors, and resource recovery operators involved in handling municipal waste and recycling streams.
Generators of community sharps should place them into an appropriate container prior to disposal to a community sharps disposal facility (unless placed in single syringe disposal units).
The Australian Standard applying to personal use containers is AS 4939-2001: Non-reusable personal use containers for the collection and disposal of hypodermic needles and syringes.
This standard only applies to containers holding up to ten 1ml syringes and needles, and NSW environment legislation does not require the use of containers conforming to AS 4939‑2001 (or any other Australian Standard) for the disposal of community sharps.
While use of a disposal container that conforms to AS 4939-2001 or AS 4031‑1992: Non-reusable containers for the collection of sharp medical items used in health care areas should be the recommended practice for generators of community sharps, it is not stipulated by NSW environment legislation.
Part 5.6A of the POEO Act includes penalties that reflect the nature and often‑harmful effect of litter. The Act provides for a penalty of 30 Penalty Units (currently $3,300) for individuals, or 50 Penalty Units (currently $5,500) for corporations for "aggravated" littering. Littering involving a syringe is defined by the Act as aggravated littering.
In practice, the threat of penalties for littering is unlikely to significantly influence the disposal behavior of injecting drug users who are already engaged in an unlawful activity. Provision of readily accessible community sharps disposal bins in association with safe disposal education is recommended as a more effective management strategy.
NSW waste avoidance and resource recovery strategy
The Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Strategy 2003 (WARR Strategy) is the primary strategy document for waste prevention, avoidance, re-use and recycling in NSW. It targets four key areas where outcomes are needed. The outcome particularly relevant to community sharps management is Reducing Litter and Illegal Dumping. The WARR Strategy identifies sharps as materials that offer substantial opportunities for action in this outcome area. Key actions needed include:
- effective education on the potential impacts of sharps littering
- provision of appropriate disposal infrastructure to reduce the likelihood of littering.
Local and regional actions identified in Community Sharps Management Plans to reduce needle and syringe litter should identify actions in both of these areas.
Copies of the WARR Strategy may be obtained from the Sustainability Programs Division of the Department of Environment and Conservation on telephone 02 8837 6000, or downloaded directly from the website under 'Publications' at www.resource.nsw.gov.au/index-RNSW.htm