What Happens During Medical Waste Disposal & Management?

Containers of medical waste sit in a row awaiting pickup & disposal.

Medical waste is broadly classified as any item that comes into contact with body fluids. Specifically, it is any solid waste that is generated in the diagnosis, treatment or immunization of humans. This type of waste was once collected in special bags and plastic boxes in clinical settings and then disposed of like normal trash. However, this process was quickly found to spread diseases and viruses and potentially cause outbreaks.

Today, the red biohazardous containers and bags seen throughout hospitals and doctors’ offices are used to safely remove sharps, needles, and IV catheters that contain any human blood or bodily fluid. Medical waste also includes paper towels, wipes, gloves, syringes without needles, bandages or dressings with small amounts of dry blood or fluid, and any other material from medical care. Syringes with needles or sharp objects that can pierce through a plastic bag require a special storage container for additional protection.

Now that we understand what medical waste is, let’s discuss what you came here to find out: what happens to medical waste after it leaves a hospital or other medical facility.

Where Medical Waste Gets Disposed Of: A Primer

There are several medical waste disposal methods healthcare providers can choose from. The first question in choosing which one is appropriate is a question of where the waste gets disposed of: namely, on-site or off-site? Usually it’s picked up and done off-site as most facilities can’t handle the challenges of on-site disposal and management.

The second question is how the waste gets transported if it’s disposed of off-site.The answer? MedPro Waste Disposal offers low-cost, secure medical waste disposal with predictable service and predictable cost. Check out our practice savings calculator here to see how much you could save on your medical waste disposal.

Where Does Medical Waste Go?

Medical waste used to be sent directly to landfills. But there are now strict guidelines and regulations surrounding the disposal of medical waste. The quick answer to the question of where medical waste goes is that it must be collected by medical waste management companies to then be properly prepared and disposed of, the process of which we will cover next.

How to Dispose of Medical Waste

Most often, medical waste is disposed of by first being collected by a medical waste management company that is knowledgeable about compliant waste management processes and procedures. Though in-house medical waste management is possible at some well-funded hospitals, it’s the exception rather than the rule.

Once picked up, the waste must next makeit safely through a sterilization process. Waste that cannot be recycled, like gauze or needles, still needs to be made sanitary and non-hazardous before it can be disposed of at a sanitary landfill. This process is usually done by using an autoclave. 

A medical autoclave is a device that uses steam to sterilize equipment and other objects. This means that all bacteria, viruses, fungi, and spores are inactivated by using temperatures so high that no bacteria can survive and thus the items are deemed safe for recycling or disposal.

Autoclaving is often used to sterilize medical waste prior to disposal in the standard municipal solid waste streams. This application has become more common as an alternative to incineration due to environmental and health concerns raised because of the combustion “by-products” emitted by incinerators, especially from the small units which were commonly operated at individual hospitals.

Incineration or a similar thermal oxidation process is still generally mandated for pathological waste and other very toxic and/or infectious medical waste.

How is Medical Waste Generated?

Medical waste is generated from medical and biological activities, such as the diagnosis, prevention, or treatment of diseases. Producers (or generators) of medical waste include veterinary clinics, health clinics, funeral homes, nursing homes, hospitals, medical research laboratories, physician offices, dentist and home health care.

How is Medical Waste Classified?

Generally Medical waste is classified as:

  • Healthcare waste that that may be contaminated by blood 
  • Bodily fluids or other potentially infectious materials that have the potential (left untreated) to harm humans, animals, or the environment. (This type of waste is often referred to as regulated medical waste, biomedical waste or simply medical waste). 

The classification of medical waste can vary from state to state be sure to check your local laws governing medical waste.

Who Regulates the Disposal and Management of Medical Waste?

In 1988 the U.S. federal government passed the Medical Waste Tracking Act which set the standards for governmental regulation of medical waste. This was enacted after a 30-mile garbage slick composed primarily of medical and household waste prompted closures of numerous New York and New Jersey beaches for extended periods of time. This act expired in 1991 and since, medical waste is primarily regulated by state environmental and health departments.

There are other federal agencies that have regulations regarding medical waste. These agencies include CDC (centers for disease control), OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) and other potential federal government agencies (DOT for example).

OSHA is one example of a federal agency that has regulations regarding medical waste; the OSHA code of federal regulations 29 CFR 1910.1030 has many parts to it. We have highlighted some of the bullet points below but you should visit this page on the U.S. Department of Labor to view the full CFR.

  • Exposure Control Plan – Each employer having an employee(s) with occupational exposure as defined by CFR 29 1910.1030 shall establish a written Exposure Control Plan designed to eliminate or minimize employee exposure.
  • Methods of Compliance – Universal precautions shall be observed to prevent contact with blood or other potentially infectious materials. When differentiation between body fluid types is difficult or impossible, all body fluids shall be considered potentially infectious materials.
  • Personal Protective Equipment – When there is occupational exposure, the employer shall provide, at no cost to the employee, appropriate personal protective equipment such as, but not limited to, gloves, gowns, laboratory coats, face shields or masks and eye protection, and mouthpieces, resuscitation bags, pocket masks, or other ventilation devices.
  • Training – The employer shall train each employee with occupational exposure in accordance with the requirements of CFR 29 1910.1030. Such training must be provided at no cost to the employee and during working hours. The employer shall institute a training program and ensure employee participation in the program.
  • Vaccination – The employer shall make available the hepatitis B vaccine and vaccination series to all employees who have occupational exposure, and post-exposure evaluation and follow-up to all employees who have had an exposure incident.

What Are My Options for Medical Waste Treatment?

On-Site Medical Waste Treatment

The on-site treatment of medical waste is generally limited to large, well-monied hospitals and facilities. On-site treatment is extremely cost-prohibitive. That’s because the required equipment is expensive to buy, expensive to maintain, and expensive to manage and run. The regulatory maze around such equipment (and its use) presents yet another barrier to entry.

Off-Site Medical Waste Treatment

Off-site medical waste treatment is a far more cost-effective option for most small and mid-sized medical practices and facilities. Third-party vendors like us whose main business is healthcare waste collection and disposal have the equipment and training needed to handle the process. Vendors can collect the waste either by truck or by mail.

  • Truck services require a contract with a specially licensed disposal company to haul the waste away for regular destruction. The waste is hauled in special containers to a dedicated disposal facility.
  • Mail or box services use the U.S. Postal Service to ship the waste safely to a facility for treatment. This is generally the most cost effective of all the methods. It requires a vendor fully versed and experienced in all special Postal Service regulations and best practices.

MedPro Disposal is Here to Meet Your Medical Waste Management Needs

We are a leading biohazardous waste and hospital waste management company. Our knowledge and expertise surrounding federal and state regulations that govern the treatment and disposal of hazardous waste make us an obvious choice if you’re looking to remain compliant and simplify your waste management process. 

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