Collection of Medical Waste

Medical waste should be collected and stored prior to treatment in a way that reduces the possibility of interaction with humans, animals, or the environment. Medical waste containers are generally imprinted with the universal three-sided biohazard symbol. medical waste container

Whose responsibility is it to collect medical waste? Everyone who works at the facility.

When it is collected, medical waste is about 150 kg per cubic meter. If you have a compactor on site, you can roughly double that before it is hauled away.


Segregating waste is a powerful technique for reducing your disposal costs and reducing risk. People resist it because it requires work up front (ideally just after the waste is generated), but the payoff usually makes it worth the effort.

To effectively segregate you need to have clearly defined categories that everyone can understand. Employees producing waste at the ground level need to know where to channel the waste - which items to put in which waste stream. Sometimes the real world will create (or at least suggest) categories for you.

It is not necessary that every health care facility use the same waste categories, but consistency is a virtue. It is a best management practice to stick with your categories and not change them often. If you are going to be a facility that recycles in accordance with your local waste authority, great! But that means you have to set up receptacles for recyclable materials and instruct your people to use them correctly.

Sorting is part of segregating, but as a practical matter, most health care facilities sort at the point of generation, or where the waste first enters the collection system. It is usually impractical to collect your waste to a central location and then sort it. Recycling centers at the metropolitan level do that - they have huge sorting facilities. But the health care waste manager finds this impractical in most cases.

You have to rely on your people. That often makes waste managers and facility managers nervous. Many a waste manager gets frustrated by the failure of employees to segregate. But it is too expensive to sort from a central location.

Constructing the waste categories for your facility

Different facilities have different activities and hence the optimal waste categories differ. A large hospital produces many kinds of waste and a high volume of waste. A dentist office produces a smaller volume of a more homogeneous waste. Here are some sample categories:

  • Compostable (e.g. employee food waste)
  • Municipal solid waste
  • Recycling (cardboard, paper, aluminum cans)
  • Waste for autoclave
  • Waste for encapsulation
  • Radioactive waste
  • Hazardous waste

The categories should be established only after a comprehensive audit of the waste the facility produces. Think long and hard about the categories.

Advantages of many categories

  • Can result in lower treatment and disposal costs
  • Prevents any one waste stream from getting too big.

Disadvantages of many categories

  • Many containers needed
  • Increases chance of employees getting confused and putting waste in wrong container.

Cross-contamination of containers

Contamination of collection and storage containers renders those containers in need of management as medical waste, too. You might be able to get multiple uses out of a container, but you won’t be able to return the container to the clean side of things in the future. This is actually mandated for RCRA hazardous waste and the precautionary principle makes it a good idea for all regulated medical waste (infectious, pathological). Specifically, US federal law says containers that held hazardous waste must be triple-rinsed (filled with water three times) and the wash liquid must be managed as hazardous waste. This might allow you to re-use the container for other purposes, but it ends up creating a lot of new waste. Unless the container is particularly valuable, this method is rarely used.

On-site Storage

Community Hazardous Waste Collection

Many municipalities have occasional household hazardous waste collection days when authorities designate a place where residents bring waste from their homes. These are intended to be strictly for residential/household waste, not from commercial facilities. Different authorities have different rules, but usually these collection days explicitly prohibit infectious waste. They are not equipped to deal with it. Check with your locality before bringing medical waste to these events.

Is segregating infectious or pathological waste the same as quarantining an area?

The word quarantine is a legal and public health term. It is the forced legal restriction of people or animals to prevent the spread of communicable disease. The quarantine order specifies a period of time which those affected are not permitted to mix with general society. The idea of quarantines started centuries ago. For instance, when a ship came into a harbor, the officials in the new city might quarantine everyone on the ship for fear of plaque. After a certain period of time if the people did not display symptoms, they were released from quarantine. With advances in diagnostic technologies quarantines are employed less often than they once were.

Medical isolation is a related term for when people with communicable diseases are kept away from others. This is closed in spirit to segregation of medical waste, but still not the same thing. Patients in medical isolation usually either get better or worse over time and the time of isolation is limited.

See also: spill cleanup




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