How to Dispose of Medical Waste

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A health care worker disposes of medical waste in a red biohazard bag.Medical waste isn’t just generated by hospitals. It also comes from patients in the public at large who lack the knowledge of proper medical disposal techniques. For example, every year, prescription medications go unused. That means after patients receive treatment and often start feeling better, leftover medication ends up sitting on a shelf, or in a drawer.

All these surplus drugs constitute a major waste problem in two ways. There is the upfront waste of manufacturing and purchasing drugs that are never used therapeutically, but there is also the issue of these drugs becoming medical waste.

Medical waste represents a serious public health problem because life-saving drugs and supplies can become life-threatening hazards when they are neglected or disposed of improperly. Hanging on to expired pills and prescriptions creates the potential for abuse or accidental poisoning. But getting rid of these drugs can create its own risks when people take shortcuts, like flushing old pills down the toilet or just throwing them in the trash.

The health care industry can lead by example on a large scale. On a smaller scale, nursing professionals can teach patients how to dispose of medical waste safely, which helps create a safer environment for everyone. An advanced nursing degree can give nurses expertise in the handling of medical waste and offer instruction in how to educate their patients.

What Is Medical Waste?

Medical waste is healthcare-related waste that can cause contamination. Medical waste is split into four major categories.

The first, infectious or regulated waste, refers to waste that can be contaminated by blood, bodily fluids, or other materials that may potentially cause infection. This type of waste can be generated by health care facilities, dental practices, veterinary clinics, and medical research laboratories.

The second is hazardous waste. Also known as pharmaceutical waste, it consists of any unused, expired, or leftover medication that either can no longer be used or is no longer needed by the patient. A medication’s chemical properties determine whether it is hazardous or non-hazardous.

A third category, radioactive waste, refers to waste produced by medical treatments involving radioactive materials related to cancer therapies, nuclear medicine treatments, and any type of equipment that uses radioactive isotopes. Infectious waste that comes in contact with radioactive materials is also categorized as radioactive waste.

The fourth category of medical waste is general waste. This consists of waste that does not fit into the other three categories and is typically no different from waste generated by an office building, such as paper or plastic.

Infectious, hazardous, and radioactive waste can pose substantial threats to the environment. For instance, pharmaceuticals containing hazardous materials, when disposed of improperly, can release dangerous chemicals that can contaminate groundwater and plant life. Improper disposal of medical waste can also carry potential health consequences to those who are exposed.

Because of the potential dangers surrounding medical waste, it is important for nurses and other health care workers to take proper disposal of medical waste seriously. In the case of physicians and nurse practitioners in states with full prescriptive authority, this means engaging in infection control by instructing patients on the proper disposal of medications once they no longer become necessary.

Hospital Medical Waste Disposal

Unused and expired medications often end up in the water supply — including drinking water. Although cities typically have robust water sanitation systems, people are simply dumping too many of their old prescriptions down the drain. Most of the time, these residual chemicals are extremely diluted. However, levels are enough to cause concern.

A 2020 study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey determined that 68% of streams that were studied contained traces of pharmaceuticals. These traces ranged from painkillers to diabetes and anti-seizure medication. Due to the biological risk involved, these findings give rise to ecological and environmental concerns.

Overwhelmingly, these trace chemicals are the result of good intentions gone wrong: people trying to dispose of their expired and unused drugs by flushing them down the toilet. People also make the dangerous mistake of throwing away medical waste in their household trash, which ends up in landfills. Medical waste like prescription drugs poses an environmental and public health threat when they end up in landfills, where they can find their way into the groundwater supply or be ingested by local wildlife.

How to Dispose of Medical Waste at Home

A variety of reclamation and disposal programs specifically address the issue of old and unused medications. These programs fall into two categories.

The first category involves using permanent collection sites. These locations are registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and are authorized to collect and properly dispose of medications and controlled substances. These sites often include hospitals, police stations, fire departments, local sanitation companies, or retail clinical pharmacies.

The second category involves targeted drug take-back programs that provide centralized locations to accept drop-offs. These are commonly sponsored by local law enforcement agencies.

Controlling the risks of hazardous waste isn’t just a matter of keeping drugs from fouling the water supply. Medical waste can also contaminate public spaces. Needles, for instance, by their very nature pose a unique health threat after use.

Syringe needles are sharp, small, and covered with bodily fluids. Millions of people continue placing used needles into their household trash or sometimes carelessly toss them away. This heightens the risk of spreading contaminants through accidental contact. This isn’t an isolated risk. Janitors, trash collectors, children, pets, and the environment at large are all impacted by needles that are not disposed of properly.

This is why needles have been grouped into a category of waste materials known as sharps — objects that can cut, puncture, and lacerate someone handling waste. They also bear an elevated risk of carrying contaminants, chiefly blood.

It is no great challenge, however, to locate a sharps disposal container. Hospitals and many public facilities have sharps disposal boxes, which are usually rigid plastic containers that prevent needles and other sharps from poking through and escaping. The containers are lidded to protect anyone handling them from an accidental cut or stick. They are sealed to prevent any fluids or other contaminants from leaking, and are generally not reusable, so their contents remain safely isolated upon disposal.

Saving Money and Staying Safe

In the case of pharmaceuticals, medical waste also represents billions of dollars in unused medications being effectively flushed down the toilet. Much of this waste comes from a lack of patient literacy about how to follow the instructions of their caregivers, as well as how to handle any unused medications or supplies following their use.

By more diligently following a drug’s prescribing instructions, patients can reduce the amount of medical waste that is generated upfront, saving money as well as reducing the number of drugs that need to be reclaimed.

While health care professionals can control these factors in a clinical environment, there is clearly a need for more experienced health leaders, especially nurses, to educate patients on how to take care of themselves, the environment, and their medical supplies. Nurses are not only on the frontlines of patient care and public health, but they also play a critical role in training patients on how to take care of their own medical waste in a safe, sanitary way. As experienced nurses from every specialty can attest, nursing is as much about educating patients as it is providing patient care.

Medical waste, like old prescriptions and used needles, are simply too hazardous to be dealt with by flushing them down the toilet or tossing them away. Nurses and their health care teams can effectively reduce waste by helping promote safe waste disposal practices.

Help Improve Disposal Habits

Improper disposal of medical waste can damage the environment and individual health. It is critical for patients who no longer need pharmaceuticals or sharps to know how to dispose of them safely. Nurse practitioners can play an important role in helping individuals gain this critical understanding.

Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Nursing program helps teach nurses how to educate their patients. The curriculum is designed to cultivate the skills to navigate the patient/nurse dynamic effectively and help develop nurse leaders.

Find out how Ohio University can help you accelerate your nursing career.

Recommended Reading

Improving Medication Dosage Calculation Proficiency

Nursing Theory and Practice: Examining the Connection

Resilience and the Nurse Manager


BioWaste Removal, “What Are the 4 Major Types of Medical Waste?”

Food and Drug Administration, Best Way to Get Rid of Used Needles and Other Sharps

Food and Drug Administration, Drug Disposal: Drug Take Back Locations

StatPearls, Practitioners and Prescriptive Authority

Stericycle, Pharmaceutical Waste & Medication Disposal Explained

Take Back Your Meds, Medicine Disposal Myths and Facts

United States Environmental Protection Agency, Medical Waste

U.S. Geological Survey, “Down the Drain?”