Disposal of Medical Waste: Where Does Medical Waste Go?

Scott Swearingen / Waste Management / February 28, 2023

Medical waste is a crucial issue that cannot be ignored in the healthcare industry, as it poses a significant risk to public health and the environment if not managed properly. The different categories of medical waste require specific handling and disposal requirements, which must be followed to prevent the spread of diseases and ensure the safety of the public.

The first step towards properly managing medical waste disposal is understanding the nuances and terms. Join us as we explore the world of medical waste disposal and learn about what happens to medical waste and the steps involved in ensuring safe and efficient waste management.

What Is Medical Waste?

Medical waste refers to any waste generated by the healthcare industry, including hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and medical research facilities. Typically, medical waste can be divided into two categories – regular and regulated medical waste, also known as biohazardous waste.

Regulated medical waste can come in many forms, including sharps (such as needles and syringes), pathological waste (such as human tissue), and infectious waste (such as culture dishes and Petri dishes). This waste can pose risks to public health and the environment if not managed properly. Therefore, it is important to understand what constitutes regulated medical waste, the different types, and the best practices for the disposal of medical waste. In this blog, when we refer to medical waste, we are referring to regulated medical waste.

Types of Medical Waste

Medical waste can be classified into several categories, each with its own specific handling requirements. According to the WHO, fifteen percent of the waste created by healthcare facilities may be infectious, chemical, or radioactive and therefore need special treatment during the disposal process. Determining what categories trash items fall into is step one of how to dispose of medical waste properly.

Non-hazardous Waste

Non-hazardous waste from hospitals includes items like food waste, packaging, paper products, and general medical waste that poses no risk to humans and doesn’t need to be disposed of any differently than traditional waste from other institutions.

Sharps Waste

Needles, syringes, scalpels, and other sharp medical instruments that pose a risk of injury and infection are considered sharps waste. Disposal practices must ensure that no one is injured or infected by these tools.

Infectious Waste

Waste from hospitals that includes materials contaminated with blood or other bodily fluids, as well as laboratory samples and cultures, are considered infectious waste. In addition, any waste used with infected patients should be treated as infectious waste.

Pathological Waste

Pathological waste from hospitals includes tissues, organs, body parts, and fetuses, which require specialized handling and disposal to prevent contamination.

Chemical Waste

Chemical waste from hospitals or laboratories includes discarded chemicals, such as disinfectants, solvents, and pharmaceuticals, that may pose environmental or health risks if not handled properly. Heavy metals from batteries or thermometers may also be considered chemical waste.

Pharmaceutical Waste

Expired, unused, or contaminated medications and vaccinations can endanger public health if not disposed of properly.

Cytotoxic Waste

Materials contaminated with cytotoxic drugs used in chemotherapy are toxic to cells and can be harmful to human health and the environment. These are any types of medicines that contain toxic, carcinogenic, or mutagenic properties.

Radioactive Waste

When working with nuclear medicine technologies and radiation procedures, radioactive waste can be left behind. This includes items that have come in contact with radioactive elements called radionuclides.

How Is Medical Waste Disposed Of?

Okay, so now you’re starting to get a good idea of what constitutes regulated medical waste, but how is medical waste disposed of? The process starts with the medical institution that created the waste and typically finishes in an incinerator or disinfected and placed in a landfill. The entire process of how to dispose of medical waste looks something like this:

1. Separation

At the hospital or medical institution, staff members must start the medical waste disposal process properly by separating materials into designated containers. For example, sharps must be placed in FDA-approved sharps containers that are puncture-resistant and leak-proof.

2. Preparation

The waste must also be packaged in accordance with the DOT and local regulations. Some materials require strict labeling and packaging requirements. Institutions can work with their medical waste disposal service providers to make sure they understand all the specific guidelines.

3. Removal

While a few large organizations disinfect medical waste on-site, most work with medical waste management companies who take over the process at this step. The company you choose to work with will pick up medical waste in a truck and often supply you with new containers for the next batch.

4. Treatment and Disposal

The medical waste management company will transport waste to a facility designed to render waste non-infectious. What this looks like can depend on local, state, and federal guidelines. In the next section, we’ll examine what happens to medical waste once it reaches this stage.

Where Does Medical Waste Go?

Medical waste is typically taken to a medical waste treatment facility for proper disposal. This may include incineration, autoclaving, or chemical treatment, depending on the type of waste and regulations. For example, pathological waste must always be incinerated. Other types of medical waste may be disinfected through autoclaving or other methods and then sent to landfills.


Ever wondered “how do hospitals dispose of body parts?” They send them to be incinerated. Incineration was once the most common method for the disposal of lots of types of medical waste. This method involves burning the waste at high temperatures and reducing it to ash. While incineration effectively destroys infectious agents and pathogens, it can also release harmful pollutants into the air. This is why changes to EPA regulations in 1997 encouraged new methods of medical waste disposal to be developed.


Autoclaving is now the most common method for the disposal of medical waste. This method involves sterilizing the waste using high-pressure steam. Autoclaving is effective at destroying pathogens, but it may not be appropriate for certain types of waste, such as chemotherapy waste. Once an item has been sterilized through autoclaving, it may head to a solid waste landfill or be incinerated.

Chemical Treatment

Chemical treatment is a less common method for the disposal of medical waste. This method involves neutralizing chemical waste to make it inactive.


Similarly to autoclaving, microwaving uses technology to disinfect and sterilize medical waste before it is discarded into landfills. During this process, a microwave is used to destroy harmful bacteria or viruses.

Medical Waste Disposal Best Practices

Proper disposal of medical waste is crucial to protect public health and the environment. The following tips provide a guideline for best practices in the disposal of medical waste.

Tip 1: Select a Reputable Medical Waste Disposal Company

There are multiple reasons you want to choose your medical waste disposal company carefully. For starters, you want to guarantee that your organization is licensed and in compliance with the regulations in place. You also want a company that focuses on safety and sustainability, as medical waste can be harmful to both humans and the environment.

While these factors are important, you’ll also want a cost-effective vendor to work with. Check out a list of the top medical waste removal companies, or reach out to P3 Cost Analysts to help make sure you’re getting the most for your money.

Tip 2: Focus on Awareness and Training

Make sure your entire staff knows the rules relating to the disposal of medical waste. Training for all practices, including segregation, storage, labeling, and transporting of medical and biohazardous waste, is crucial. You should also have written instructions available for employees to consult on how to dispose of medical waste when in doubt.

Tip 3: Segregate Waste Properly

It is important to properly segregate medical waste to ensure that it is handled and disposed of properly. Segregating items into the right containers and labeling them helps ensure the safety of employees, the waste removal company, and any others who may come in contact with it. It also ensures that the waste goes through the correct disposal process.

Tip 4: Know the Law

Medical waste is regulated mainly by state environment and health departments. However, there have also been regulations by the EPA, the CDC, OSHA, the FDA, and more. Compliance also depends on the volume of medical waste your institution produces. Therefore, staying up to date on current laws about what happens to medical waste is vital to ensure your business doesn’t face steep fines and penalties.

Tip 5: Keep Records

Both the medical waste generator and the waste disposal company must keep records for the required amount of time which varies by state. Make sure to keep detailed documentation of every stage of medical waste disposal. It may protect you down the road.

Tip 6: Audit Your Medical Waste Disposal Company

The entire waste management industry is known for overcharging its customers or not delivering the services they’re supposed to provide, and medical waste companies are no different. The best way to keep your preferred vendor in check is with a waste management audit. By working with a third-party company like P3 Cost Analysts, you can ensure that you’re not overpaying for your medical waste disposal and that you end up with the most cost-effective solutions.

How to Dispose of Medical Waste Wisely

There are many medical waste disposal companies that you can choose from, but finding the most cost-effective solution is not always easy. Working with a third-party company like P3 Cost Analysts is the wisest way to handle this problem.

Whether you feel you’re overpaying for your current services and need an expert to help go through your invoices, or you’ve had enough and are ready to negotiate with a new provider, we can help. We have a team of professionals with years in the industry that can help you navigate the tricky contractual language and confusing billing practices.

If you’re ready to get your medical waste disposal costs under control, reach out to us today.

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