What Is Medical Waste?

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on April 06, 2024
3 min read

At some point you’ve probably used health-related supplies that created some type of medical waste. That’s the leftover trash or disposable byproduct from your health care.

Examples of medical waste include:

  • Medical sharps, such as needles and syringes
  • Disposable masks
  • Used bandages or other dressings
  • Body parts removed during surgery
  • Samples from tests, like blood, pee, or stool
  • Chemicals in treatments or tests
  • Contaminated medical devices

There are several different kinds:

Infectious or biohazardous waste. This is waste that’s contaminated with things that could infect people. It includes:

  • Materials with blood or other bodily fluids in or on them
  • Cultures and stocks of infectious substances from lab work -- these pose the biggest risk of spreading infectious diseases
  • Waste from people with infections, like swabs, bandages, and disposable medical supplies

Labs or sites that do COVID-19 tests, for example, treat all medical waste (like patient specimen samples and test kit components) as biohazardous.

Sharps waste. This type of waste poses the biggest injury risk. It comes from medical devices that have sharp points or edges that can puncture or cut skin. These include syringes, needles, and disposable scalpels and blades. Loose sharps are dangerous because they could accidentally stick someone and lead to a dangerous infection. Never toss these into bags, trash cans, recycling bins, or toilets.

After you use any sharp, put it in a sharps disposal container. It should be:

  • Made of heavy-duty plastic
  • Able to close with a tight-fitting lid that can’t be punctured
  • Upright and stable when you use it
  • Leak-resistant
  • Labeled to warn that there’s hazardous waste inside

Keep the container far away from children and pets. Get rid of it when it’s about three-fourths of the way full so you lower your chance of an overflow (which could lead to an accidental needle-stick injury.) Ask your local trash removal service or health department for guidelines on how to get rid of the container.

Pathological waste. This includes human tissues, organs or fluids, and body parts. Contaminated animal carcasses are another example.

Chemical waste. Some examples of this are solvents and certain other substances used for laboratory preparations and disinfectants.

Pharmaceutical waste. This includes expired, unused, and contaminated drugs and vaccines.

Cytotoxic waste. Cytotoxic drugs, for example, can target and damage cells that grow at a fast rate, like cancer cells. But their waste has substances with properties that can be dangerous to health.

Radioactive waste. This includes waste (like contaminated materials and syringes) that comes from nuclear medicine imaging tests, radiation, and PET scans.

Nonhazardous or general medical waste. This type generally doesn’t pose any biological, chemical, radioactive, or physical risk to your health. It can include:

  • Paper or plastic trash
  • Gloves and gowns
  • Packaging, wrappers, and containers
  • Dressing that doesn’t have blood or potentially infectious materials on them

You make this type of waste at home when you do things like throw out a disposable mask, take a rapid COVID test, use a medical sharp, or flush unused medication.

Health care waste mainly comes from:

  • Hospitals and other medical facilities
  • Labs and research centers
  • Mortuary and autopsy centers
  • Animal research and testing labs
  • Blood banks and collection services
  • Nursing homes

Because hospitals often burn infectious medical waste, in the late 1990s the Environmental Protection Agency set tighter emissions standards meant to curb air pollution from it.

Some alternative treatments use microwave technology, steam sterilization, or chemical mechanical systems to render medical waste noninfectious, which makes it safe to go in a landfill.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to hospitals creating tens of thousands of metric tons of medical waste from used test kits, syringes, needles, and other objects.

A report from the World Health Organization says the sheer amount of waste puts people and the environment at risk. The authors outline recommendations meant to help health care facilities use safer, more eco-friendly sustained waste practices. Recommendations include using more eco-friendly packaging, wearing reusable personal protective equipment, and investing in disposal techniques that don’t burn waste.