Waste Management at Pharmacies and Dispensaries

Pharmacies dispense medicines, and do not engage in patient treatment, other than give vaccinations. The scope of medical waste tends to be lower in a pharmacy than in a clinic.


Sharps include needles employed mainly to inject vaccines into patients. Although many drugs are given by injection, the administration is usually carried out by the patient at home or by a healthcare professional either at home or in an office/clinic. Pharmacies may also sell needles, lancets, and other sharps either alone or as part of a drug system. Additional sharps include broken glass.

Sharps waste management is well defined, and there are many companies that sell sharps containers. Keep containers around your pharmacy, and make sure your employees use them routinely.

Pharmaceutical waste

Medical waste managers consider pharmaceutical waste one of the main categories of waste produced at a hospital. For a drug store, it is the most important category and the one that generates the most attention and costs the most to manage.

Some pharmaceutical waste is hazardous waste under the federal government’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Other waste generated at the pharmacy may not include any medicine traces, but is nevertheless RCRA hazardous waste. This includes some solvents, mercury, and anything that is corrosive or contains heavy metals (including batteries.)

General waste

Other waste at the pharmacy includes routine waste similar to that generated at any business. This includes paper and packaging that has not come into contact with drugs. Waste professionals call this municipal solid waste; laymen may use the terms "trash" or "garbage". The important thing in management of this waste is segregation and containment. As long as it does not contact bodily fluids or drugs, it is not regulated and can be disposed of inexpensively.

What about aspirin?

Aspirin is a drug. The medicines sold over-the-counter are drugs and should be disposed of as such. But can’t someone at home toss these medicines into the trash basket to be taken away as municipal solid waste? Yes, but regulators will look at the source of the waste in addition to its chemical and physical characteristics. If a relatively benign drug like aspirin is disposed of by a pharmacy, it must be classified as pharmaceutical waste. Be sure to be meticulous about this.

Non-hazardous / non-regulated pharmaceuticals is not required by the EPA to be disposed of as hazardous waste. That might change in the future. Even if it does not change, we recommend putting all waste drugs into a container which will be disposed of as RCRA waste.

Collection and Segregation

A simple three bin segregation system (sharps, pharm waste and general waste) is a first step that is easy to implement and that reduces the most important risks. Evaluate the situation at your facility to see if a more complex collection system is called for.

Treatment and Disposal

Unless a waste is particularly hazardous, you almost definitely do not want to treat waste at a pharmacy. Have a waste management company remove it. Pharmaceutical waste is incinerated, and the waste from your facility will be sent to an incineration operation with waste from many sources. Sharps waste is treated through chemical decontamination followed by mechanical deformation and ultimately landfill disposal.