Color Codes for Medical Waste Containers

Large operating facilities that generate medical waste usually employ a color coding system to distinguish different types of waste. This is an ergonomic approach - it reduces the cognitive demands on the workers and makes it less likely that human error will result in mixing of disparate waste.

Color coding also provides a visual indication of the potential risk posed by the waste while the containers are in the facility of waste origin and after they have been transported elsewhere.

Medical waste is put in plastic bags, metal containers, and hard plastic barrels and bins. All of these might be color coded. Check your local laws, but it is usually not required by law that a color system be used; instead it is considered a “best practice” by industrial hygienists and waste management professionals.

WHO-recommended color scheme

Color Type of container Type of waste
Black Plastic bag General non-infectious and nonhazardous
Any, but with radiation hazard symbol Lead box Radioactive
Brown(with warning symbol) Chemical or pharmaceutical
Yellow with biohazard symbol and (when relevant) words "highly infectious" Plastic bag or rigid box Infectious Waste, Pathological Waste, Sharps

The UK’s Department of Health promulgates a color system as follows:

Red - anatomical (e.g. blood, organs)
Orange - clinical/infectious
Yellow - clinical/highly infectious
Blue - medicines (e.g. unused drugs)
Purple - cytotoxic and/or cytostatic products (e.g. chemotherapy medicines)
White - dental
Yellow and Black - offensive, but not hazardous
Black - Municipal waste - e.g not clinical or medical waste

Consistent colors

For ergonomic purposes, make sure all waste containers in the same stream are the same color. If there are small bins in examination rooms for infectious waste and those bins are red, then the larger containers for infectious waste should also be red, and the drums or boxes in the storage area for infectious waste should also be red. If you use black for non-hazardous waste, use black in all such containers throughout the facility.