The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established some general laws governing the proper disposal of medical waste. Beyond this, stricter laws on handling different types of medical waste will vary from state to state.

In general terms, most medical waste must be treated in some way to remove any hazards it contains. This is important in order to prevent the spread of contagious diseases within a medical facility. In the process of purifying the waste, it's also essential that no infectious elements be released into the environment to put the community at risk. How these goals are achieved depends on the category of hospital waste and the level of danger it contains.

Handling Medical Waste

Hospital waste can include everything from needles, gloves, and bandages to body organs, fluids, and soiled materials. Most waste is categorized based on whether the items pose a risk of spreading infection to others via contact, whether the item is sharp (such as a needle) and can transfer an infectious disease into the bloodstream, whether it contains hazardous substances that can harm the environment (such as chemotherapy medication), or whether it contains body parts that need to be treated separately.

Different Types of Medical Waste

Here are some common categories of medical wastes and some of the medical waste disposal and treatment options that exist. (Just remember that not all states are the same):

  • Medical waste like fluids, tissue, and organs that contain microorganisms are commonly referred to as pathological waste and this requires special handling. Incineration is the most conservative approach for this category, but some states allow steam sterilization, or other types of chemical or thermal treatment processes to remove any danger that exists.
  • Medical waste that comes from discarded diagnostic cultures grown in laboratories, also called microbiological waste, is typically handled by incineration, chemical treatment, or some other form of sterilization in most states.
  • Needles and medical instruments that are inserted into the skin are referred to as sharps. These pose a danger for the people who handle them since they can transfer an infection if the needle pierces their skin. To avoid this problem, many states require sharps to be isolated in special medical waste disposal containers that are clearly marked as a biohazard to indicate the danger. It's crucial that the metal containers can't be punctured by the sharp points. In some states, the sharps are treated instead to remove the infectious agent and to also remove the sharp point, thereby avoiding the danger.
  • Body parts and other anatomical waste may be able to be buried or cremated, depending on your state. Some states require this type of waste to first be processed into an unrecognizable form. In some cases, if the previous condition is met, then it may be disposed of in a landfill.

With so many different types of medical wastes to take care of, most hospitals and other medical facilities contract with a medical waste management company that specializes in handling these specific types of wastes.

Navigating Medical Waste Management

It's also worth noting that not all biohazards fall into the category of "regulated medical waste," according to Elizabeth Knollmeyer of Laboratory Management Resources, LLP. "Because most landfills won't accept untreated biohazards, they frequently end up in the big regulated medical waste boxes for pickup, especially in medical practices which don't have the same resources as hospitals for decontamination of biohazards."

She says that for medical practices looking to reduce their medical waste costs, the first step is to learn "what actually constitutes biohazardous material and avoid including items that can be discarded in the landfill."

Medical Waste Disposal Practices in Your State

To learn more about how medical waste disposal is handled in your area, contact your local or state health department and find out what laws exist in your state.

Elizabeth Knollmeyer reviewed this article.




Elizabeth Knollmeyer, B.S., MT (ASCP). Laboratory Management Resources, LLP. Email interview 26 Nov. 2012.

"Treatment and Disposal of Regulated Medical Waste." Healthcare Environmental Resource Center (HERC). N.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2012.