Collection of Medical Waste

Medical waste must 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. symbolThis standardization immediately identifies these containers as medical waste. General storage guidelines issued by OSHA include the following:

  1. Contaminated reusable sharps must be placed in containers that are puncture resistant, closeable, puncture resistant, leakproof on sides and bottoms, and labeled or color coded,
  2. Reusable sharps that are contaminated with blood or other potentially infectious materials must not be stored or processed in a manner that requires employees to reach by hand into the containers,
  3. Specimens of blood or other potentially infectious material are required to be placed in a container that is labeled and color coded and closed prior to being stored, transported or shipped,
  4. Regulated wastes (liquid or semi-liquid) must be placed in containers that are constructed to contain all contents and prevent leakage of fluids, labeled or color coded, and closed prior to removal,
  5. All bins, pails, cans, and similar receptacles intended for reuse are required to be inspected and decontaminated on a regularly scheduled basis,


You local jurisdiction may have rules about warning labels that must be affixed to storage containers. Even if there are no legal requirements, best practices call for warnings that indicate the nature of the hazard. For infectious, pathological, and most regulated medical waste, the medical waste symbol can be employed. Indeed if you buy bags and containers designed for medical waste, these often come with the medical waste symbol on it.

The hazardous waste symbol, although not as widely recognized as the medical waste symbol, is appropriate for RCRA waste.

Radioactive waste (often produced in healthcare facilities) and mixed waste (mix of radioactive and hazardous waste) should be labeled with the universal radiation symbol.

Canadian guidelines stipulate a special Cytotoxic warning symbol on cytotoxic drug waste. In the US, cytotoxic waste would be classified as RCRA waste.


The marketplace is full of vendors that sell bags for medical waste. Just look in a directory of industrial supplies or an internet search. For the most part there are no (or few) government regulations on these (containers for sharps are another matter.) The vendors may brag their bags are thick and resist punctures. Some bags are labeled with the biohazard symbol and some are colored. Some manufacturers sell both the trash can (specifically labeled for medical waste) and the plastic (or canvas) bag that goes with it.

Best practice for most facilities is to buy these dedicated medical waste bags. Could you just use general purpose garbage bags? In a pinch you could and these will work for most medical waste items, provided you don’t overfill them. But in general you want to keep medical waste in containers labeled medical waste, and it is worth paying a little more to get bags and bins already labeled.

Bags sold for medical waste are usually made from linear low-density polyethylene, although some may be made from polypropylene. One good thing about these materials is that they will burn in an incinerator with almost no ash. Bagged waste never needs to be removed from the bag before it enters a heated chamber. Some processes move the bags through a shredder first, which breaks the bags and may mix the waste from one bag with another.

Bags come in sizes from kitchen garbage size to as big as 55-gal drums (a standard drum size in industry.) You might hear of “red bags” and “red bag waste”. You might think this designation has a legal meaning, but it doesn’t. There is no rule that says your infectious or pathological waste must be put in a red bag, although most industrial hygienists and sanitation engineers probably prefer a red bag, all other things being equal.


More sturdy containers are employed to hold large quantities of waste. You can buy these from many retailers and there are no "official" requirements for them. If a legal dispute arises, the court will look at whether the waste manager exercised due care. Containers, bins, barrels for medical waste can be made from various materials (plastic, steel, aluminum). Colors should conform with whatever scheme you have set for your facility.

Large containers should be lockable, especially if they are going to be outdoors or in an area where a lot of customers or non-professionals frequent.

If you have a waste removal service, they might be able to provide containers. Considering the low cost of the containers compared to what they charge, they really should do so if they want you as a regular customer. They may also have containers that fit with their handtrucks or other mechanical transport means.


You don’t want to put medical waste in dumpsters, which are not built tight enough to keep out rain and vermin.

Sharps containers

These containers are designed so the user is never exposed to any of the sharps already in the container, eliminating the possibility of contact or puncture by any of the used needles. Sharps containers are generally made of thick plastic, and have a door that opens and the user can insert the sharp into the container. When the door is closed, the sharp is dropped down into the main chamber of the container. The container functions much like a standard post office mailbox, in that the user cannot reach the sharps inside the container via the door. Sharps containers are also used for other categories of sharps, including scalpels and lancets.

Sharps containers are found in public locations, and can also be used by private individuals who use sharps in the home, such as diabetics who require regular injections of insulin. For home users, a sharps container is provided by a private disposal company. When the individual fills the container, the container is then mailed to the private disposal company for disinfection and destruction prior to disposal.

More on sharps.


State regulations generally dictate the maximum amount of time that medical waste can be stored prior to treatment. For example, in the state of New York, storage of regulated medical waste is limited to seven days. Medical waste must be stored separately from standard waste, without possibility of the two waste types mixing. All reusable storage containers must be disinfected after they have been emptied, unless they employ a disposable liner that is removed with the waste.

Note the workplace safety rules should always be followed with medical waste, and there are cases of workers getting sick, including with tuberculosis, from contact with waste.

The Difference between Collection (storage) and Disposal

The patent literature is rife with disposal containers for medical waste. But these are actually storage containers for temporary isolation of the waste from human workers. (Disposal refers to long-term and presumably permanent resting place for waste.) Storage is of concern to the waste manager, too, and vendors provide a wide variety of options for containers. Your state government still might have something to say about storage but the containers on the market usually are acceptable to them.

Operating procedures for your business should specify the maximum time you intend to store waste on site. If you know how fast your waste is generated and how often it gets taken off-site you will be able to determine the volume and type of storage needed.

Collection and storage procedures

Large operations often have small collection bins spread around the facility. For instance, a complex of doctors’ offices may have containers in each examination room, with a regular schedule of transferring this waste to a larger storage unit.

The placement of the storage units is an element in the overall design of the waste management process. Factors that must be weighed: Number of storage units at a given facility (fewer is better to reduce risk of release)

  • Distance between generation of waste and storage unit (less distance is better – many operating rooms have units so doctors and nurses can put tissue in units without moving long distances.)
  • Size of storage units.
  • Air flows in locations.
  • Ergonomics
  • Traffic patterns (people, vehicles) nearby

Some material on deisgn of management processes.

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.




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