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How to Dispose of Medical Waste

Last Updated: May 15, 2024

How to Dispose of Medical Waste

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From blood draws to throat swabs to surgeries, many medical procedures result in medical waste. Healthcare providers know the risks involved with improper handling of medical waste. These include infection transmission, injury, environmental contamination, and legal and regulatory compliance issues.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), medical waste is regulated at the state level through environmental and health departments. There is some additional oversight by federal agencies, including Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, the vast majority of enforcement actions occur at the state level.

Complications of Medical Waste Disposal

Most hospital waste is nonhazardous general waste. It can be recycled or sent straight to a landfill. However, each day the average hospital in America also produces over 33 pounds of biohazardous waste. This adds up to almost 6 million tons of medical waste generated in the United States each year.

The most significant complication of disposal is the potential for health risks. This affects everyone from healthcare workers to patients to the general public. Improper handling of biomedical waste can lead to the spread of pandemics and diseases, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and environmental contamination. This includes the risks of contamination of soil and water, the release of potential carcinogens, marine and terrestrial pollution, air pollution, and aquatic ecosystem damage.

There are also serious legal implications when a hospital or healthcare provider does not dispose of medical waste properly. This ends up being not only dangerous, but very costly. In 2023, Kaiser Permanente settled a case with the State of California for $49 million after they improperly disposed of hazardous waste. In Baltimore, Curtis Bay Energy, the nation’s largest medical waste incinerator  was fined $1 million for failing to properly incinerate waste and then transporting it along state roads. Also, they were ordered to pay an additional $750,000 to a Supplemental Environmental Project fund for environmental improvements in the South Baltimore area.

Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown explained,

“Because of the nature of special medical waste and its risk to public health, it is regulated. It’s why those who are responsible for handling, treating, disposing, and transporting special medical waste are held to strict standards. And it’s why we hold them accountable when they fail to meet those standards.”

How to Dispose of Medical Waste

Before disposing of medical waste, it is important to know and understand the specific regulations for your state. These are the key steps for proper medical waste disposal:

An infographic detailing how to dispose of medical waste
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1. Segregation

Different types of medical waste should be separated to prevent contamination. This is typically done with color-coded bins or bags. Most regulated medical waste can be disposed of in red bags that fit inside waste containers. Chemotherapeutic waste and needles and other sharps must be placed in special containers. These bins should be leak-proof and puncture-resistant to prevent spills and injuries to handlers. These containers must display the biohazard symbol.

2. Storage

Before disposal, medical waste containers should be stored away from public access. They should not be stored outdoors. Rooms or facilities holding these containers should have proper ventilation and temperature controls.

3. Transportation

When waste receptacles are full, the containers must be sealed before transport. Boxes and bags should be marked and not exceed state weight limits. Hazardous medical waste should only be transported using authorized vehicles. All personnel must be trained in handling potentially infectious materials.

4. Treatment

There are several methods for treating medical waste, including incineration, autoclaving, and chemical disinfection. Incineration completely destroys the waste through high temperatures that promote combustion. Autoclave processing subjects the waste to high-pressure, high-temperature steam for 30 minutes, killing any pathogens. This waste is then safe to transport. All treatments must be done before disposal to ensure the waste is no longer a health hazard to handlers or the general public.

5. Disposal

Local and state regulations govern the ways to dispose of treated waste. Typically, this includes landfill disposal, but there may be restrictions in certain areas. Treated biohazardous waste can also be sent to a waste-to-energy facility (WTE). The WTE process converts waste into electricity by converting it into steam that then runs a turbine.

6. Documentation

Medical waste handlers must comply with disposal regulations and tracking requirements. Ensure that accurate records are kept of the waste generation, handling, treatment, and disposal.

Recycling Efforts for Medical Waste

There are some initiatives to replace medical waste incineration with recycling. For example, Becton Dickinson, a medical technology company, has teamed up with Casella Waste Systems to pilot a program that will take 40,000 pounds of discarded syringes and needles and separate the plastic out of them to be recycled. The program organizers hope to expand the program to include other types of medical materials for recycling.

Discount Dumpster Helps You Handle All Your Waste

Discount Dumpster has the know-how and experience to handle all types of waste. We’ll answer all your disposal questions and help you find the waste management options that are right for you. Call us today to learn more about how we can help you clean up your waste at a price you can afford.

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About Monica Mayhak

I am an expert content writer with a depth of experience in the waste management and dumpster industry, with over 25 years of experience writing about construction, home improvement, property management, and education topics. As lead research writer for Discount Dumpster, I have expanded my knowledge and understanding of waste management, construction, and environmental issues over the past several years.

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