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Medical Waste Disposal Methods

June 6, 2020

Covid-19—no surprise—has generated a lot of interest in medical waste disposal methods. Contrarily—what might surprise you—is that public concern about where & how we toss medical waste is a relatively new phenomenon: say about 30 or so years.

Back in the 1980s (think: “big hair”, New Wave, punk rock, funk, and preppies) there was a series of incidents wherein medical waste was washing up on East Coast bathing spots, which was doing absolutely nothing to help the local economies, particularly the tourist industry.

The beaches were closed.

Most notorious is probably the 1987-88 environmental disaster unappealingly remembered as “The Syringe Tide,” when a scourge of hypodermic needles and other medical detritus washed up onto New York City, Jersey Shore, and Long Island beaches.

Predictably and appropriately, these happenings induced calls for increased regulation, bringing us the 1988 Federal Medical Waste Tracking Act: strict rules regarding medical waste disposal methods.

That Act expired in 1991. In the ensuing 19 years, each state has evolved its own regulations about medical waste disposal methods, to which you can add concomitant concerns about HIPAA, epidemiology, and legal liabilities.

Medical waste also commands the attention of the DOT, EPA, OSHA, and the DEA. Thus, should you suddenly have medical waste where there was none before—courtesy of Covid-19 or otherwise—you should get expert advice.

Best Practices for Handling Medical Waste

  • Identify biohazardous wastes and separate each into appropriate containers for sharps, pharmaceutical, chemical, pathological, and non-hazardous categories.
  • Avoid mixing hazardous and non-hazardous wastes so as to prevent overspending on medical waste disposal.
  • Use approved containers for a particular category of waste. E.g. special tubs, puncture-proof containers, and/or certified cardboard boxes as appropriate.
  • Use the medical waste disposal color code.
  • Store containers in a secure dry area for scheduled pickup and/or shipping.
  • Label and packaged containers per DOT regulations; be mindful of weight restrictions.
  • Include correct documentation per state & local agencies, DOT, EPA, and OSHA.

Get expert advice here or call Hazardous Waste Experts at (888) 681-8923.

What trash requires medical waste disposal?

Your garbage requires medical waste disposal methods if it includes:

  • Anything that’s been soaked in blood (gloves, gauze, gowns, etc.)
  • Cultures of infectious diseases and/or agents
  • Discarded vaccines, antibiotics, pills, and other pharmaceuticals
  • Human or animal tissues
  • Waste from the rooms of patients who have communicable diseases
  • Disinfectants and solvents used for laboratory purposes
  • Batteries and heavy metals from decommissioned medical equipment
  • Anything carcinogenic, teratogenic, or mutagenic

How is medical waste treated?

There are three main medical waste disposal methods:

Autoclaving. About 90 percent of biohazardous waste is incinerated this way. The material is placed in a specialized container at high levels of temperature and pressure to be consequently destroyed. Or it’s zapped in a microwave-on-steroids to exactly the same effect.

Chemical Disinfection. Some biohazardous wastes can be chemically disinfected and then landfilled like any other kind of waste.

Encapsulation. This is used for what medical-waste aficionados call “sharps,” which is contaminated material that can easily puncture conventional waste containers and thereby spread their evil. Most obvious are syringes. This kind of stuff is “encapsulated” into puncture-proof containers and segregated from the more-pedestrian garbage in landfills.

Should you try any of this at home?

Probably not. Onsite treatment of medical waste is the domain of large hospitals and facilities that have huge budgets and legal departments for just that purpose. The required equipment is expensive to buy, maintain, manage, and operate—and heavily regulated by the government.

Virtually the only option for SQGs is offsite treatment by a vendor whose main business is hazardous waste transportation and disposal. You can find your local options here.

Getting terms straight

Medical waste has several aliases, but it’s basically all the same stuff and requires the same kinds of medical waste disposal methods. Among the more ubiquitous labels you’ll see are:

  • Biohazardous Waste
  • Biomedical Waste
  • Clinical Waste
  • Healthcare waste
  • Infectious Medical Waste
  • Medical Waste
  • Regulated Medical Waste (RMW)

These terms are used interchangeably, but with one caveat. The WHO categorizes sharps, human tissue, fluids, and contaminated supplies as “biohazardous.” Non-contaminated equipment and animal tissue are called “general medical waste.”

(N.B. Office paper, sweepings, and kitchen waste from healthcare facilities are still technically medical waste, though they’re neither regulated nor considered hazardous.)

Medical Waste Color Code

Red bags for syringes sans needles, soiled gloves, catheters, IV tubes, etc.

Yellow bags for dressings, bandages, swabs with body fluids, blood bags, human anatomical waste, and everyone’s worst nightmare: body parts

Blue-marked cardboard boxes for glass vials, ampules, and similar glassware

White translucent puncture-proof containers for needles, blades, and other sharps

Black bags for “nonbiological” medical waste such as hospital stationery; leftover foods, peels, rinds, and other kitchen waste; medicine packaging; as well as disposable masks, caps, cups, shoe-covers, and cartons. Also, sweeping dust.

Need medical waste disposal services? Call Hazardous Waste Experts at (888) 681-8923.

The upshot

The disease-containing strategies being imposed on businesses because of Covid19 are creating unprecedented situations: wastes previously thought benign and/or nonhazardous might nowadays require medical waste disposal methods.

Because of its danger to public health, medical waste management will earn you the scrutiny of multiple regulating bodies: the DOT, EPA, OSHA, and the DEA, as well as state and local bureaucracies.

Such a challenge requires expert advice and careful planning. For help call Hazardous Waste Experts at (888) 681-8923.

Thank you for reading our blog!


* The featured image used in this post was taken by Stephen Witherden and can be found here.

Disposal of hazardous waste doesn’t have to be painful.