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How to Safely Dispose of Biomedical Waste

September 21, 2016

Disposing of biomedical waste is a huge responsibility for hospitals, doctors' surgeries and other medical facilities, which is why there are clear guidelines in place to ensure the safety of healthcare workers and to make sure that the general public is not compromised when items are being put out for collection.

Biomedical waste can range from used bandages to contaminated needles, and from blood samples that are no longer needed to drips that have been used to administer treatments such as chemotherapy.

With such a wide variety of potentially hazardous items needing to be disposed of, it is vital that all healthcare workers are aware of the correct way to dispose of hospital waste to prevent the spread of infection.

Here, we examine the guidelines for disposing of general regulated medical waste, sharps and pharmaceutical waste.

General medical waste

The following items fall under the category of regulated medical waste:

  • Bandages, gauzes and other dressings
  • Lab samples of bodily fluids such as blood, semen and saliva
  • Tissue or other body parts that have been cut away, and may carry infection

Figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that around 85 per cent of the medical waste disposed of by healthcare facilities across the globe is not hazardous to humans, but the remainder may be infectious, toxic or even radioactive. For example, tissue may have been removed from a patient previously treated with radiotherapy and could pose significant risk to the public and the environment if not disposed of correctly.

Any medical waste that contains traces of blood or other bodily fluids is also classed as biohazardous, meaning extra care needs to be taken to ensure it is disposed of properly.

To safely get rid of biomedical waste, healthcare facilities need to have designated areas where items can be safely stored away from patients and equipment until it is ready for collection by disposal experts, who will destroy the waste, possibly by incinerating it.

In smaller medical centres where there may not be as much space to store waste before it can be taken to a specialist biomedical waste handling facility, sealable plastic containers will be provided to keep waste out of the way of staff and patients until it can be collected.

Sharps disposal

WHO statistics estimate that some 16 million injections are carried out around the world each year, but, unless they are disposed of safely, the millions of needles used could lead to the spread of blood-borne pathogens associated with potentially life-threatening illnesses including hepatitis B and C, as well as HIV.

If needles are not disposed of in the correct manner by medical facilities, WHO predicts that there is a 30 per cent chance of a needlestick injury leading to the spread of hepatitis B and a 1.8 per cent risk of developing the hepatitis C virus, along with a 0.3 per cent chance of HIV being contracted.

However, the safe disposal of sharps is not just a challenge for hospitals, but also for the general public, as many diabetes sufferers administer their own insulin injections each day, while a significant number of home carers carry out injections on a regular basis.

As a result, all homes that require sharps disposal resources and all medical facilities should have a designated sharps bin specifically designed for safely discarding used or broken needles.

To safely dispose of sharps, it is vital to never attempt to recap a needle, as this could lead to the spread of harmful pathogens or an injury, but needle clippers are available that allow the safe removal of the sharpest point. These clippers can be accessed via prescription for those who require them at home. Then, the needle must be placed in the designated sharps bin, making sure that no other waste is mixed up with it.

In the UK, local authorities are responsible for collecting full sharps bins on a regular basis, while specialist services will be in charge of gathering and further disposing of old needles discarded by hospitals.

Disposing of pharmaceutical waste

Pharmaceutical drugs or vaccines that are out-of-date or simply no longer needed could all cause serious harm if they fall into the wrong hands and are ingested in any way, so it is vital that guidelines are followed when hospitals and pharmacies are disposing of this kind of waste.

Again, designated bins or storage areas should be available at all medical facilities for disposing of pharmaceutical waste, and it is the responsibility of healthcare staff to make drugs are separated into solids, liquids and aerosols. Then, like with other forms of biomedical waste, a contractor should be appointed to collect the waste and handle its destruction in a safe, controlled environment.