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How is Medical Waste Disposed of?

November 10, 2021

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How is Medical Waste Disposed of?

How is Medical Waste Disposed of? Medical waste poses risks to the health and safety of people and the environment. A lack of oversight, combined with an insufficient understanding about the risks and benefits of different disposal methods may lead to improper medical waste management and disposal practices. To ensure that proper disposal is taking place, it is imperative to understand what types of medical waste are managed in this way. There are six types of medical waste: Sharps; Pathological waste; Cultures and stocks of infectious agents; Biohazards (Human blood and blood products); Isolation waste; and Anatomical parts. The article will explore how each type is managed to ensure safety, as well as how these wastes can be disposed of.

What is Medical Waste?

What does “medical waste” really mean? While not completely distinct, there are a few essential aspects that should be noted when we are talking about medical waste. Medical waste is healthcare waste that that may be contaminated by blood, body fluids or other potentially infectious materials and is often referred to as regulated medical waste. 

There are several different types of medical wastes: Sharps; Pathological waste; Cultures and stocks of infectious agents; Biohazards (Human blood and blood products); Isolation waste; and Anatomical parts. Each type requires specific disposal methods. Medical waste does not have an expiration date, so simply not disposing of it can be unsafe. Many states have strict laws concerning how long medical waste can be onsite. With the many different types of medical wastes, the only method that will protect the public and environment is proper treatment and disposal by specific waste type.

The Six Types of Medical Waste


Sharps: These are any items that contain or may contain agents that are infectious that can penetrate the skin as well as puncture cardboard boxes or waste bags; sharps that have been used in human or animal care, or medical, industrial labs and research. Sharps can include but are not limited to hypodermic needles, Pasteur pipettes, broken glass or plastic, capillary tubes, scalpels, blades, knives, heel lancers, retractable or needles destruction technologies, and needless injection devices. Sharps have specific requirements for handling, packaging, storage, transport, and disposal under DOT (Department of Transportation) and OSHA guidelines.

Sharps – Disposal and Safety Risks

The CDC (Center for Disease Control) has estimated that there are around 385,000 sharps injuries that occur on an annual basis in U.S. hospitals with many more in other healthcare settings.  This increases the risk of transmitting bloodborne viruses such as HBV (hepatitis B), HCV (hepatitis C), and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). Dealing with sharps requires taking every precaution and complying with the various state and federal laws to ensure that healthcare providers and patients remain safe.

Sharps should never be recapped and should always be discarded just after use by the user. It is important to have FDA cleared sharps containers available at the point of generation.

The safest type of sharps container is one that prevents contact with other sharps in the container. This is accomplished by using a container that has a touchless disposal process. You place the sharp in a tray and rotate the lid, so the sharps drop into the container without you having to place them inside of the container manually, which helps prevent sticks from other items in the container.

When picking up other types of sharps like broken glass, you should use a pan and broom and never pick up the items by hand.

Only uncap needles when they are ready to be used. You can use a hemostat to loosen and remove the cap.

Always keeping your eye on the sharps while in use and making sure the needle is pointed away from the user can help prevent accidental needle sticks.

Pathological Waste

Pathological and anatomical wastes. All wastes from human organs, tissues, or body parts that have been removed during autopsies, surgeries, or other hospital procedures that have an intension for disposal. Pathological wastes are commonly tissue samples from laboratories that are used in disease studies and are typically small sections of body materials that are from surgical or biopsy situations. Anatomical wastes are commonly identified as human body parts, organs, and tissues that might need special treatment to comply with regulations established by a state. In some states, they exclude teeth, nail, and hair as pathological or anatomical waste.

Pathological Waste – Disposal and Safety Risks

Pathological waste is red bag waste but must be separated from regular red bag waste. Pathological waste requires different storage and handling. For instance, pathological waste must be incinerated and therefore must be properly labeled as “incineration only”. In addition, pathological waste maybe hazardous waste if it was in contact with chemicals that fall under the RCRA hazardous lists, like chemotherapy. Extra precautions should also be taken when disposing of pathological waste into red bags to prevent leakage in the case of items containing bodily fluids, double bagging, storing in plastic bins, etc.

Identifying the waste, segregating the waste, and labeling the waste appropriately is the key to a successful medical waste management program. All employees from doctors to part-time janitorial staff should be aware of the policies and procedures required for each waste type they may encounter.

Cultures/Stocks of Infectious Agents

This classification is also called microbiological waste and is aligned with biologicals and microorganisms. These can include but are not limited to discarded culture dishes, cultures, and any device that is used for the transfer, inoculation, and mix of stocks, cultures, attenuated vaccines, and specimens and any items that are associated with the procedures that may contain organisms that have the potential to be pathogenic to healthy human beings. The category also includes discarded etiologic wastes and agents from biological and antibiotic production that may have been contaminated by organisms that are likely to be pathogenic and any waste that has its origins in research labs or clinical research procedures that are involved in infectious agents that are communicable. It’s important to note that “sharps” are also considered to be microbiological waste however they have a separate definition and requirements for handling and disposal.

Cultures/Stocks of Infectious Agents – Disposal and Safety Risks

Microbiological Waste including Biosafety Level 1, 2 and 3 organisms is medical waste and maybe chemically treated or autoclaved. Microbiological waste can be in solid or liquid forms. Solid forms once placed in a properly labeled, leak proof container can be disinfected by thermal or chemical treatment.

In most cases, solid biological waste is accumulated in the red-bag-lined cardboard boxes or plastic bins, while liquid wastes are in spill/leak proof containers until disinfected. All sharps must be collected in designated sharps containers.

Any staff member that risks potential exposure to blood or biological fluids will be supplied with and wear PPE such as gloves, full bodysuits, booties, and respirators when required.

Biohazardous Waste

Human blood and blood products: This classification includes bulk human blood and body fluids as well as OPIM (other potentially infectious materials).  OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) defines this group to include waste human blood components, waste human blood, or any products that are derived from blood including but not limited to: plasma, serum, bulk human body fluids such as semen, cerebrospinal fluid, vaginal secretions, pleural fluid, synovial fluid, peritoneal fluid, pericardial fluid, amniotic fluid, saliva from dental procedures, any body fluid that has blood can be visually seen, all body fluids in conditions where it may not be possible to differentiate between body fluids. The classification also includes hematology lab fluid samples, surgery drainage, and any feces or urine that is visually contaminated with blood.

Biohazard – Disposal and Safety Risks

The risk of infection and transmission of potentially deadly diseases is too great.  State and Federal laws also indicate that the generator is responsible for the biohazard waste from the moment of creation to proving that it was appropriately disposed of according to legal guidelines. Lack of compliance can result in high fines that are compounded daily. A medical waste disposal company will supply clients with the manifests needed while taking care of all biohazard waste disposal according to all guidelines required. The dangers of mishandling biohazard waste disposal can cause transmission of deadly diseases to people and the environment.

Biohazard waste is generally autoclaved to make it non-infectious as it does not require incineration and is a more environmentally friendly way to treat medical waste.

Isolation Waste

These are wastes that are derived from diseases that are highly communicable. Isolation waste may be from discard materials or biological waste that has been contaminated with blood, exudates or secretions from humans or animals, or excretions that are isolated as part of the protection from transmission of highly communicable diseases.

Isolation Waste – Disposal and Safety Risks

Isolation waste is everything anyone brings into an isolation room, even things that are not consider medical or biohazardous waste. There are three basic isolation waste categories: unregulated solid waste, medical or red bag waste, and sharps waste. Proper PPE is required for isolation rooms typically these rooms will have a sign on the door and a waste cart right outside the room. The key is not to use or take the gowns, gloves, shoe coverings through out the rest of the healthcare facility. These items will be put on prior to entering the room and removed before leaving the patient’s room. Regular biohazard waste and sharps waste disposal procedures apply since these are adequate to destroy diseases.

Contaminated Animal Carcasses, Bedding, and Body Parts

This is generally referred to as “animal waste” and is any waste that involves animals that might have been exposed to agents that are infectious to healthy humans. Typically, animal waste is generated during the production of biologicals, research, or pharmaceutical testing.

Contaminated Animal Carcasses – Disposal and Safety Risks

Contaminated Animal Carcasses should be marked for incineration to be disposed of at an approved disposal facility. This waste is treated and disposed of similarly to Pathological Waste. Contaminated Animal Carcasses waste must be incinerated and therefore must be properly labeled as “incineration only”. In addition, this waste maybe hazardous waste if it was in contact with chemicals that fall under the RCRA hazardous lists, like chemotherapy. Extra precautions should also be taken when disposing of Contaminated Animal Carcasses into red bags to prevent leakage in the case of items containing bodily fluids, double bagging, storing in plastic bins, etc.


A crucial element in protecting human health and the environment from health and environmental concerns is proper disposal of medical waste. When handled and disposed of properly, these materials are made safe for disposal.

However, a lack of oversight and insufficient understanding of the different disposal methods can lead to improper medical waste management practices, such as putting the wrong materials in the wrong containers. These practices may cause contamination of the environment, as well as potential health risks. In addition, could be the source of unwanted fines from the overseeing state and governmental agencies.

The best option is to lean on an experienced professional medical waste disposal company that also has their own treatment plant, like, Healthcare Waste Management. A medical waste disposal company that owns their own medical waste treatment plant must stay up on the latest regulations for all medical waste categories listed above. Should you have any questions or would like a quote on your medical waste disposal needs call Healthcare Waste Management at 888-427-5797 today!

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