Medical Waste Disposal 101: Main Types, Methods and How to

The proper management of regulated medical waste is crucial not only to avoid regulatory fines, but also to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Medical waste – also known as biohazardous waste, sharps waste, biomedical waste, or infectious waste – is a byproduct of healthcare facilities and commercial businesses. But what is the proper medical waste disposal?

Types of Medical Waste

According to the Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988, medical waste is “any solid waste that is generated in the diagnosis, treatment, or immunization of human beings or animals, in research pertaining thereto, or in the production or testing of biologicals.” Medical waste falls into one of four different categories: infectious, hazardous, radioactive, and general.

  1. Infectious waste – It describes waste that could cause infections to humans. This category includes blood-soaked bandages, human or animal tissue (blood or other body parts), discarded cultures, surgical gloves, stocks, or swabs to inoculate cultures. Much of this medical waste could also be labeled as pathological waste, which requires specific treatment and disposal (read on to find out more).
  2. Hazardous waste – It has the possibility to affect humans in non-infectious ways, but it still meets federal guidelines regarding hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Hazardous medical waste includes sharps (objects that can puncture or lacerate the skin), needles and syringes, discarded surgical instruments (scalpels or lancets), culture dishes and other glassware. This category also covers chemicals, both medical and industrial. Old drugs, including chemotherapy agents, are sometimes considered hazardous.
  3. Radioactive waste – Generated from cancer therapies, nuclear medicine treatments, and medical equipment that employs radioactive isotopes. It is required that pathological waste contaminated with radioactive material be treated as radioactive waste and not simply infectious waste.
  4. General waste – Makes up at least 85% of all waste generated by medical facilities. Just like general household or office waste, it includes plastics, paper, liquids and any other materials that do not fall in any of the previous three categories.

Pathological Waste

As we already mentioned, pathological waste can fit in any of the above categories. However, it still has its own designated category because of “the potential psychological impact on observers.” Pathological waste is anything you can recognize it came from a living organism. It consists of recognizable tissues, organs, and body parts extracted from animals or humans.

This category includes tissues and material removed in surgery as well as fluids and solids removed in autopsies. Teeth are the only exception. According to federal laws, knowledgeable staff should not use autoclaves for pathological waste, but treat it by incineration.

Methods of Medical Waste Disposal

Many hospitals and laboratories have the resources to implement internal medical waste disposal and treatment. If sufficiently sterile, the treated waste can generally end up in a sanitary landfill with other general waste. In some cases, regulation allows facilities to discharge it into the sewer system.

In the past, hospitals had dedicated medical waste facilities for on-site decontamination. Today, most medical centers hire contractors to collect, treat, and dispose of medical waste. Therefore, the percentage of medical organizations that perform their own treatment and disposal has dropped significantly. Here is a quick overview of the main medical waste treatment and disposal methods approved by regulation.

On-Site Medical Waste Treatment

1. Autoclaving

Sharps and certain other types of infectious waste need to go through thermal treatment. An autoclave is essentially a large pressure cooker that uses steam and high temperatures to kill any microorganisms. There are various sizes, addressing to the needs of various facilities. These medical appliances range from 100 liters to 4,000+ liters (used to treat bulk waste treatment).

Automated autoclaves require minimum human involvement also reducing the risk of contamination and needle-stick injuries. Decontaminated sharps and other medical waste that’s been autoclaved is then transferred to a medical waste removal vendor. It is then disposed of as non-infectious waste. The autoclave is not for decontaminating chemical waste (including chemotherapy waste) and pharmaceutical waste.

2. Chemical Treatment

Chemical treatment decontaminates or deactivates certain wastes on site. Often used to deactivate liquid waste, it saves the medical facility of the hassle of packaging and sending this medical waste to a separate facility. Given the liquids’ high susceptibility to spills, their treatment usually takes place as close to the generation site as possible. Regulation recommends chemicals like chlorine, sodium hydroxide or calcium oxide for the treatment, depending on the type of waste.

Only knowledgeable staff should execute chemical treatment as it requires maximum care. If your facility is not comfortable with on-site chemical treatment, there is an alternative. You can use solidifying agents to turn liquids into solids, then direct them to a medical waste removal service for disposal.

3. Microwave Treatment

A microwave treatment system is similar to an autoclave, in the sense that it also decontaminates medical waste through heat. The design of these systems allows them to treat waste that is not 100% dry or solid. The moisture allows deeper penetration through heat while the steam sterilizes. Most types of medical waste need to be shredded and mixed with water to achieve the desired effect before microwave treatment.

Off-Site Medical Waste Disposal

  1. Incineration

Federal regulation often requires incineration for pathological and pharmaceutical waste. The incineration of medical waste usually takes place in a controlled facility to minimize any negative effects for the environment and ensure complete combustion. As one of the most complete medical waste disposal methods, incineration kills 99% of microorganisms and leaves minimal waste.

  1. Land Disposal

Facilities resort to land disposal for shredded, treated and decontaminated waste. In certain cases, hazardous waste or untreated waste that cannot be decontaminated is sent to specialized sanitary landfill sites. Therefore, they provide a safe destination for medical waste disposal. Thanks to their location and their reinforced construction, these specialized landfills reduce the risk of soil and water contamination.

Waste Management

Waste Management is a specialized company that makes sustainability for healthcare facilities both possible and profitable. Medical centers can even dispose of their waste by mail. This convenient disposal-by-mail program provides an easy, efficient and affordable pre-paid mailing system for sharps and medical waste. For more information, contact their commercial waste solutions team – 1 (866) 803-7561.

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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