Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hard-to-Recycle Item #6: Medical Waste

With the passage of health care reform and rising prescription drug use, increased focus on national health systems should be accompanied by discussion of safe disposal options for this immense industry. Medicines come in a variety of forms; from pills to injections to salves to radiation treatment. All produce discards inevitably from their applications, and the utmost concern and scrutiny needs to be employed in handling these potentially hazardous and infectious wastes.

For the most part, training and public health guidelines for health professionals have kept the problems at a minimal level. However, the amount of household generators and private practices has risen in the past couple decades, simply from the development and propagation of new medicines and treatments. The EPA estimates that 45 million Americans are drinking water with traces of medications flushed down the toilet that don’t get filtered at water treatment facilities. Home care nurses, private vets, self-medicators, all fly under the radar, which is better at preventing large-scale generators like hospitals and pharmaceutical factories from improper disposal.

I’ve had several sorters tell me their greatest fear is reaching into a pile of recyclables only to have their hand come back out with needles stuck in it. We average one or two gallon jugs full of used needles a month here at the Boulder County MRF, not to mention the free-floating needles that pass through the system. We’ve had scalpels and IV tubes make appearances, leading me to believe some commercial generators are not following the guidelines. We’ve had one or two sticks in the past before my time here, and the resulting hospital visits and bills accompanying them were not gravy, let alone the fear of the punctured worker. The cost of those bills is more than enough to set up a public drop-off box at the county’s hazardous waste facility, which I am currently lobbying for. There are other options communities across the country have employed. You can see these and more at

So what are you supposed to do with your old prescriptions, used insulin needles and bloody gloves..? Well, first you should be familiar with your municipality’s hazardous waste guidelines. Most will tell you where certain items need to go; pills and outdated medicines need to go in the trash, needles should be put in a puncture-proof screw-on container like a milk gallon or coffee container and then thrown in the trash, BUT NEVER THE RECYCLING! It should be noted that those little orange pill bottles are made of a recyclable plastic (medical marijuana patients rejoice!), but never leave anything in them. Needles can also be collected through private take-back programs, or incinerated with home devices. Bloody objects should go in the trash, but if they’re big like a mattress for instance, you should call your county’s accident clean-up people. If this is not possible, wrap the object in layers of plastic and drive it to the landfill, checking their list of accepted materials beforehand.

It sucks that the majority of medical waste needs to be landfilled, but at the moment there aren’t any better options; no one wants to recycle contaminated materials. Waste-to-energy incinerators are used by private take-back companies; incineration is generally a better look than landfilling. Perhaps the biggest problem with the medical waste stream is that the compositions of its materials are rarely known, usually involving crazy chemicals, micro-bacteria, viruses and heavy metals. I am not familiar with what is done to discards from radiology clinics, MRI rooms, chemotherapy machines and the like, but you would hope that someone has implemented safe disposal measures. Considering some of the decisions made before my generation though, you never know.


  1. Medical institutions, the government, as well as the whole community should work together towards proper medical waste disposal. A collective effort will surely help reduce the possible spread of bacteria or disease caused by its improper disposal.

    -Dollie Wessner

  2. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting.Many thanks
    Medical Waste Containers