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The Cleveland Clinic's Underground Robots Assist With Medical Waste

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) help move materials around the Cleveland Clinic's campus, including help getting surgical waste sterilized and properly disposed of. [Gabriel Kramer / ideastream]
Automated guided vehicles (AGV) help move materials around the Cleveland Clinic's campus. [Gabriel Kramer // ideastream]

The Cleveland Clinic's main campus workforce is the size of a small suburb. These employees perform operation after operation, so it's easy to imagine how many bandages and gloves and gauze pads that get tossed away on a daily basis. 

Taking care of things behind the scenes is a very intricate, well-oiled system getting the medical waste disposed of properly. And it uses a fleet of robots to get it all done. 

After an operation, a team of medical professionals assigned to clean up the operating room separates the recyclables, the regular trash and the RMW -- the regulated medical waste, including gauze, bandages and other materials that may have been contaminated.

The recyclables and trash are and tossed down separate chutes to the basement of the hospital. The RMW goes into red bags and then down an elevator to the basement.

That’s where the robots take over. 

The lower levels of the Cleveland Clinic are crawling with automated guided vehicles, or AGVs as the staff calls them. 

The AGVs are self-driving buggies used to move materials and supplies all around the Clinic's basement. 

There are 100 AGVs that, according to the clinic's Office for a Healthy Environment, each travel the 25 times the distance around the Earth in one year.

It's common to see the AGVs carry linens and hospital gowns, plated lunches and dinner and yes, trash, recyclables and regulated medical waste. 

The trash and recycling gets taken from their chutes, put on an AGV and moved to regular disposal locations. 

When the RMW is put on an AGV, it is taken to a special room to get sterilized in a machine that heats the medical waste until the materials’ temperature hits 250 degrees Fahrenheit and spins for about an hour.

The Regulated Medical Waste is sterilized after 60 minutes of 250 degree steam spinning in this autoclave. [Gabriel Kramer / ideastream]

After a sterilizing cycle, the RMW is rid of anything that is potentially hazardous and can out with the rest of the trash.

"Cleveland Clinic is in the business of health and healthcare. Our first mission is do no harm," said Jon Utech, senior director of the Clinic’s Office for a Healthy Environment. "We try to do no harm in the disposal of our waste."

The Cleveland Clinic thinks thoroughly about how the environment affects the health of people, Utech said.


Gabriel Kramer is a reporter/producer and the host of “NewsDepth,” Ideastream Public Media's news show for kids.