Waste Management at Biological Research Facilities

The Malsparo Medical Waste website has this page on research labs even though we recognize the wide range of activities undertaken at labs means the waste management challenges will vary considerably. This is true even more than it is for hospitals.

We focus on waste produced at labs working with biological material. This may be human, animal, or plant material. The scope of activities may include research and production of genotypes stock for medical and bioresearch use elsewhere.

Types of waste

Lab waste composition depends on what kind of materials are being employed and what kind of experiments are running. Each facility has its own waste profile. The waste categories used in hospitals and general industry apply here, too. Waste that is hazardous under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) must be stored, treated, and disposed of in a manner that complies with regulations. Radioactive waste must be managed under Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules. Infectious or biohazardous waste must be disinfected before disposal.

Researchers who work with microorganisms often grow or "amplify" them in lab glassware (in vitro). Even if these microorganisms are known to be benign, accepted laboratory waste laboratory practices call for the material to be destroyed on site. Indeed, heat treatment in the same laboratory is preferred and is often done with a lab autoclave. Large facilities may have central incinerators or steam sterilization autoclaves. Incinerators are less common than they once were. Dry ovens are also viable for sterilization, but not often used. Steam autoclaves are the industry standard.

When operated correctly, these units bring the material to a temperature of 250°F (121°C). After 30 to 90 minutes (depending on the load size) the material is considered sterile. The biological materials (remains of the microorganisms) and glassware can be disposed of as municipal solid waste.

Special biomedical material

Recombinant microorganisms and animal cell lines, infectious material (infectious to humans, plants, and animals), are biohazards. Also, transgenic organisms and materials derived from those organisms are usually classified in this waste stream. Synthetic DNA and plasmids, biological toxins, and anatomical waste from humans go in this category. Some labs classify anatomical waste from primates in this category, too.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies the type of biological waste produced at labs as the most troublesome infectious waste: "Of all the categories comprising regulated medical waste, microbiologic wastes (e.g., untreated cultures, stocks, and amplified microbial populations) pose the greatest potential for infectious disease transmission, and sharps pose the greatest risk for injuries."

Animal waste

Dead animals should be removed from the facility and disposed of quickly. If you must keep the carcass around, be sure to refrigerate it. Deceased animals should be double-bagged as dead bodies can easily leak. Although manure from healthy animals requires no special handling or treatment, material that comes from animals exposed to pathogens must be handled as biohazardous. This includes bedding material used by those animals.

Many labs work with small animals. The deceased animals can be disposed of on site with a tissue digester. Alkaline hydrolysis is widely used for animal disposal in industry. They use high temperature and sodium hydroxide to break down tissues. Digester units can be small and process the carcass in a few hours. The fluid that remains is rich in nutrients and could potentially be used for animal feed but it is not used for that purpose especially after the mad cow disease scare. If quantities are small, the fluid is often flushed down the drain into the local waste treatment system. Be sure to let your local authorities know you are doing this.

Lab safety protocol used in most places calls for foreign animal disease exotic to the United States to be handled in Biosafety Level 3 facilities.

Pathological waste

Anything that is recognizable as having come from a human person is called pathological waste. It mainly differs from other biological waste in the psychological impact on a viewer. Pathological waste include amputated body parts, removed tumors, placentas, miscarried embryos, aborted fetuses, and sometimes includes bodily fluids. Blood is a special waste; it is subject to special OSHA regulation.

Cultural practices often dictate what is done with pathological waste. Family members may insist it be interred or cremated. Although the alkaline hydrolysis system used to dispose of animal carcasses is gaining acceptance for human bodies, you may wish to avoid controversy or problems by adopting a cremation policy.


Research labs often make use of needles, syringes, and razors, which are called “sharps” in medical waste management and collected and managed separately.

Sharps waste includes phials, pipettes, and test tubes, even if unbroken. These are fragile and can break in the waste collection process. Plus they take a lot of effort to clean to make them acceptable for MSW disposal. Apply the precautionary principle and put them in the sharps waste stream.

See our page on sharps for how to store waste that can lacerate skin.

Biological waste

Your facility may be experimenting on bugs or rodents, or it may be working with microbes. You might have human blood products, and other body-fluid samples. The range of bio material is wide.

Some labs grow microorganisms in culture to a good-aized mass. Cultures and stocks of microorganisms must be neutralized before they can be safely disposed of. Labs deactivate these cultures on site by either autoclaving (steam sterilization) or chemical treatment. Steam autoclaves are the industry standard. When operated correctly, these units bring the material to a temperature of 250°F (121°C). After 30 to 90 minutes (depending on the load size) the material is considered sterile. The biological materials (remains of the microorganisms) and glassware can be disposed of as municipal solid waste.

Researchers who work with larger organisms must find other ways to dispose of their waste. Waste of obvious human origin (pathological waste, including anatomical waste) can be incinerated, but should never be autoclaved or treated in an oven or by chemicals or heat below incineration temperatures.

Labs that operate at biosafety level (BSL) 3 or 4 treat biological material before releasing it from the facility. The material is said to be “decontaminated” - meaning it is disinfected and possibly sterilized. BSL 1 and 2 laboratories do not, by guideline, have to decontaminate biological waste before it is shipped off-site, but many do as a matter of facility policy.

The website for the University of Massachusetts advises lab workers that "biological research material" must be treated by chemicals or autoclaving before it enters the municipal solid waste stream. Further it says these some biomedical wastes (cultures, cell lines, human blood, animal excrements) can go into the MSW stream for disposal if they have been autoclaved. Check with your local officials, but there is a good chance that if it is good enough for UMass, it is good enough for you. .

General waste - not hazardous or of special concern

Most waste produced at labs is general, non-hazardous waste like that produced at any large building or campus: paper, plastic, food and beverage containers. This is called municipal solid waste (MSW) among waste management professionals, and it goes to your local government’s waste system, and usually ends up in landfills. You can try to reduce costs for this waste in several ways:

  • Establishing a new waste stream for recyclables. Get your employees to segregate waste and put recyclable material into dedicated containers. Check with your local recycle authority about what they accept.
  • Establish a new waste stream for compostables. This is usually feasible only if your local government runs or sanctions a large-scale compostable operation. Again, check what is acceptable, but usually food and landscaping waste can go in this stream.
  • Reduce waste at the source by purchasing items and materials with an eye to how much waste it will make when you are done with it. Waste minimization is a key tenet of responsible waste management.
  • Compact your MSW on site. Industrial scale trash compactors reduce volume of waste that must be hauled away to the landfill. Look at the costs in your area, but most prices charged to waste generators take volume into account.

Storing Waste

You do not want to keep the waste on site for the long run.

Make sure you can segregate waste by type in storage: hazardous waste in one area, radioactive waste in another, biological waste in another. MSW can usually go in dumpsters outside the facility. There is no need for it to be in an enclosed area or near the other waste. The same is true for recyclables.

The storage area should be large enough so that forklifts (if you use them) and handtrucks can easily pass through among the containers. You should be able to access each container at any time without moving around other containers.

he storage area should contain spills and be easy to clean. This means it should have an impermeable floor sloping to a drain. A water supply should be present so that the floor will be easy to clean and disinfect. You probably want to keep PPE and cleaning supplies in this area, in case of a spill.

Ideally, the trucks that haul away the waste will be able to enter, or get close to the storage area so that containers can be easily loaded.

Waste management plan

Facilities that generate medical waste on an on-going basis need to have a waste management plan in place.

You might be rolling your eyes thinking: another plan? But the good things about plans include

  • Shows good faith if you ever get into a legal problem – you can show you have put some thought and effort into controlling risks posed by your waste.
  • Allows you to estimate future costs for treatment and disposal.
  • If a state agency requires a permit, they will almost surely want you to write a plan.
  • Allows future employees to more quickly understand processes.

See our page on waste management plans for ideas. We cannot give you a plan; nobody can. It is up to the management of each facility to develop a plan. Doing so will clarify your waste management practices, help you identify holes, and be a good resource for educating new employees who have some say in safety at your facility.

Environmentally Preferable Purchasing

Environmentally preferable purchasing (EPP) refers to the purchase of the least damaging products and services, in terms of environmental impact. At its simplest, EPP may lead to the purchase of recycled paper, through to more sophisticated measures such as the selection of medical equipment based on an assessment of the environmental impact of the equipment from manufacture to final disposal – known as “life-cycle thinking”.

The best plastics for recycling are polyethylene, polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is the most difficult. Packaging of mixed materials, such as paper or card covered in plastic or aluminum foil, is rarely recyclable.

Worker Safety

Workers at research facilities are at a greater risk for exposure to hazardous and biohazadous material than the general public is. A well designed facility and workflow can reduce that risk. Safety engineers use the terms engineering controls to refer to hardware and physical systems and administrative controls to refer to policies and procedures. Engineering controls can eliminate the hazard or isolate the hazardous material and/or worker. Biosafety cabinets are built largely for this reason. Methods to direct airflow can reduce risk from airborne pathogens. So are the medical devices in use specifically designed for safety. For instance, safety-engineered needles that help to protect workers from exposure to bloodborne pathogens.

And workers may need to use PPE when doing certain activities, including handling waste. The PPE itself can become regulated waste in some cases. For instance, gowns used in the handling of cytotoxic drugs are disposable and generate waste as do neoprene gloves used by scientists and technicians to handle dangerous biological materials.

Training and Awareness

You need to have a primer training on waste management for every employee. This material is not intuitive and even though your employees might be highly trained scientists, they are not going to instinctively understand waste management issues or what their responsibilities are. Some employees need extra training or specialized training for the department they work in.

We have some ideas on training programs. But you have to tailor the program to your facility and what your facility does.

Consider putting signs around the facility reminding people what kind of waste goes in what container. Also, make sure every collection bin or container is labeled with the category of waste it accepts. People make mistakes, so some cross-contamination will occur. Instruct your people to correct their mistakes if they notice them - applying the precautionary principle might increase the volume of hazardous/regulated/biological waste and hence increase disposal costs. But letting an infectious material go through to the MSW stream and to a landfill could, if discovered, lead to a major public relations problem for your facility and a waste disposal and cost headache.