Household Medical Waste


You can dispose of most household medical waste through regular trash pickup. You don’t need to hire a medical waste disposal company. But you need to take common sense care and check your local regulations. Even when the US federal government regulated medical waste under the MWTA trial program, it specified that household waste was not included.

Soiled or bloody clothing, bandages, and equipment

Dispose of old medicines

Sharps

Cleaning your house

You may want or need to use universal precautions and protective equipment. These precautions would be taken by others in the house to avoid infection in cases where transmission of serious disease is possible. Regular cleaning of areas where the patient goes can help avoid generation of extra waste. Ask your medical care team; they might recommend specific cleaning procedures. Around-the-house sanitizing can be done with bleach or ammonia solutions. Many commercial preparations build off these components and perhaps add detergents. Other industrial disinfectants employ more complex compounds. See page on disinfection.

Is household medical waste safer than the waste produced in hospitals? Not necessarily. Experts feel that residential waste is about as infective as most of the solid or liquid wastes from hospitals

Sharps

Medical waste in the house poses risk to anyone living in the house as well as visitors and home healthcare workers. If the waste is thrown in the regular trash, the workers who pick up the trash can be at risk, too. It is not uncommon for sanitation workers to get stuck by needles when on the job.

People who take injections on a regular basis should have a sharps container in the house. You should throw away syringes while the needles are still attached. Do not try to remove or bend the needle.

Needles, needle pens, and lancets should go into a sharps container immediately after use. Keep the sharps containers away from children. Medical supply retailers sell sharps containers. They are typically hard, thick plastic, and are constructed to be difficult to open (child and pet safe). If you are going to produce sharps waste regularly, it is worth buying a container. Households have more latitude than professional facilities. If you generate sharps at home and do not have a sharps container, you can make one from an old plastic detergent bottle, or a metal coffee container. Label it “SHARPS”. Do not use a cardboard carton or a container of thinner plastic, and try not to use a transparent container.

When the sharps container is full, you may be able to put it in the regular trash. Put the sealed container into the center of a full, preferably dark trash bag and throw it out with the regular trash. Never put any type of sharp container in the recycle bin. To ensure nobody harms themselves, authorities recommend positioning the sharps container underneath other trash. You might have a hospital, clinic, or doctor’s office nearby willing to take sharps waste.

Never put the sharps container in a recycle bin. Many municipalities have separate collection for trash and for recyclables. You want to put the sharps containers (and other household medical waste) in the trash. It is not recyclable. You will produce a huge headache for your recycle company if you put needles and other medical waste in the recycle bin.

Never put sharps in a medication collection drop box. Many drugstores and healthcare facilities offer dropboxes so people can get rid of their unused medicines in a responsible manner. These are great ideas and help with society’s management of this issue. However, the collection and disposal systems connected to those dropboxes are not set up to routinely take in sharps.

Hospitals and nursing homes in New York are required by state law to accept waste sharps from individual households. Some of the large drug store chains started taking in sharps from individuals a few years ago. These included CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid. You might want to call a local store and inquire if it offers this service.

The FDA has this webpage on safely using sharps. FDA page

Cloth Items

Used gauze, gloves, and bandages safely may have blood, excrement, or other bodily fluids on them. Put them into plastic bags that can be sealed. You can find bags for sale that are specifically intended for medical waste. You might find these convenient, but they are not necessary - any sealable bag will do. When the bag is full or it is trash pickup day, seal the bag (to protect sanitation workers) and put it in the regular garbage pickup barrels.

We recommend using specially made sharps containers for needles, but you don’t need special bags for gloves and bandages. However, dedicating bags just for used gloves and bandages is a good idea for isolating the waste within the house.

Medicines

Prescription medicines should be used only by patients they are prescribed for. If you have leftover medicine you don’t need, do not give it to someone else. Throw it away.

Your local area might have dedicated centers for collecting unused and unwanted medicines. Many retail drug stores also take them. The federal government’s Drug Enforcement Agency has a website that can tell you places (in the US) near you where you can turn in prescription drugs. Click Here.

DON’T FLUSH MEDICINES DOWN THE TOILET. Sewage treatment systems cannot typically break down drugs. The medicines get into the environment where they can have detrimental effects. For this reason, most drugs should be put in the regular trash barrel so your local authority picks it up for disposal in a landfill. The drugs are less likely to negatively impact the environment if they are in a landfill.

Some waste management experts recommend mixing unused drugs with coffee grounds or cat litter before throwing them out. This makes the drugs less desirable to humans and animal pests (mixing eliminates the odor of the drugs). Then put the mix into a sealed container before putting it in the trash. You may wish to remove prescription labels before doing so, both for privacy and to prevent human interlopers from using the information to order refills.

The Food and Drug Administration does recommend toilet disposal of certain medicines, mostly addictive opioids.

The Department of Justice provides a handy webpage where you can find a Pharmaceutical Disposal Location in your area: https://deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_disposal/takeback/index.html

Conventional cleaning techniques

Are regular cleaning procedures you do around the house adequate to prevent disease transmission? Not necessarily, and that is mostly due to the techniques used more than the disinfectant solutions used. Mops and cleaning cloths do indeed provide low-level disinfection of floors and countertops. But if those items are not cleaned themselves and the liquid in the mop bucket is not changed often enough, cleaning can be inadequate. Many facilities toss mopheads into the washing machine, and that is effective to an extent. Similarly, washing clothing (e.g. scrubs) used in medical procedures helps limit infection risk, even if it does not make the clothing sterile.

Radioactive waste

Patients receiving radiation therapy such as brachytherapy and iodine treatment for thyroid disease can produce low-level radioactive waste. Their urine and feces may be considered radioactive. Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions for cases like this. You might be advised to keep bodily wastes in a container for a while until the radioactive material decays.

Difference between waste, rubbish, trash, and garbage

Anything people want to throw away permanently can be called refuse or waste. In households garbage is primarily organic waste from the kitchen and bathroom. Food waste and scraps are garbage. Other refuse from the rest of the house is usually trash, unless it is compostable and a compost system is in place, in which case it can be called compostable waste. Yard clippings are in this category. In areas that have single-stream recycling programs, most trash can be put in the recycle container. Not organic stuff like yard clippings, but trash generated inside the house is usually acceptable for recycling. Garbage cannot be recycled.

Medical waste generated at home can be put in the garbage bin. If extraordinary circumstances make the waste particularly hazardous, your healthcare provider may tell you otherwise, and pharmaceuticals merit special disposal, but most stuff like bandages can be tossed in the garbage (not the recycling container.)

Resource: Sharps Disposal - EPA