A little late to the game but Shanghai, the largest city and financial hub of China, made it mandatory for her residents to sort their garbage starting from 1 July. Mainly, residents have to separate any unwanted stuff into recyclable, hazardous, wet (perishable) and dry (other) waste before disposal. Failing to do so will face an RMB 200 ($29) fine for individuals and RMB 50,000 ($7262) for companies and organizations. 

In reality, waste separation is easier to say than done. Often, residents are confused about which category is their waste belong to. For example, the expired drug is considered hazardous waste but residue coming from herbal or traditional Chinese medicine is regarded as wet garbage. It’s not surprised netizens began to voice out their concerns and questions all over Chinese forums not long after the scheme began.

Shortly after the new scheme was announced, a group of technology experts working for Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce and retail tycoon, tried to overcome the confusion by developing an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered trash recognition tool. They piloted it on digital wallet Alipay and the mobile version of Taobao, an online shopping site. In less than a month, the tool had already attracted more than 12 million users. 

In the case of medical waste 

To access the feature, users will have to tap onto the scan icon or type “what kind of trash are you?” on the search bar. The tool will then inform users which category of waste it belongs to. In the case when the trash is novel to the system, users can also train the algorithm by typing the name of the unknown object. Other than that, there are also shortcut buttons where users can push to request for recyclers to come and collect their second-hand clothes or household items for free. 

At this point, it’s hard not to wonder whether there is a space for AI or other forms of new technologies in the treatment of medical waste. According to the World Health Organization, about 15% of medical waste is hazardous, which means they could be toxic, infectious or radioactive. An estimated 16 billion injections are performed annually worldwide and all needles and syringes need proper disposal after use. 

The tricky part is, the challenges of medical waste management are very different between developed and developing countries. For developing countries, the failure to separate and properly sterilize hazardous waste before disposal remains a huge concern. Most of the time, sanitary landfills and legal policies for hazardous waste management are absent in the developing world. On the other hand, developed countries tend to discard a large amount of unused equipment and large quantities of obsolete or expired pharmaceuticals stored in hospital departments that should be returned to pharmacies for disposal. 

The potential of new technologies 

Earlier, a research team from the University of Toronto had received funding to grow micro-organisms that feed on waste. So, even if some of these biohazard materials get into the soil, there are ways to ensure that the contamination remains minimal. There are also companies that work towards using microwave disinfection plant to decrease waste volume by 80%. 

Ultimately, the pressing need is a smart, comprehensive inventory system, ideally driven by AI, so that healthcare professionals are able to track down what is in-store and what is not. At the same time, waste management teams will be able to track down all the types of hazardous waste, so that they can better cater resources or design innovation around each hospital region. The global medical waste management market is likely to reach $13.3 billion by next year, with the ongoing AI hype, there’s a lot more new technologies can do. 

Author Bio
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Hazel Tang

A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.