What Happens to Medical Waste?

If you look around any medical facility in the United States, you’ll see red trash cans, sharps containers on the wall, and biohazard symbols alerting you to potentially infectious materials.

Each of these helps to manage the large stream of medical waste (or “biohazardous” waste) that our healthcare system generates – this includes a long list of potentially harmful wastes such as used sharps, as well as items contaminated with blood.

Although updated statistics on infectious waste generation prove elusive, a 1990 study concluded that U.S. hospitals produce approximately 4 – 6 pounds of infectious waste per occupied bed per day. Given that there are over 5,500 hospitals with approximately 900,000 staffed beds in the country, that equates to about 1 million tons of medical waste generated annually by hospitals alone. It’s clear that medical waste management represents a crucial function of the healthcare system.

So where does biohazardous waste go? What do we do with 2 billion pounds of potentially infectious medical waste?

Regulations require that medical waste is treated and rendered non-infectious prior to disposal in a landfill. After it goes through the treatment process, it can safely be disposed of in a landfill like any other solid waste.

The three primary treatment methods each uses either heat, chemical reactions, or a combination of both to decontaminate biohazardous wastes:

  • Autoclave – a process of steam sterilization that uses steam under high pressure to kill potential contaminants in the medical waste
  • Incineration – some forms of medical waste (e.g. pathological waste and chemotherapy waste) are treated via incineration at very high combustion temperatures
  • Chemical agents – the biohazardous waste is exposed to a chemical agent such as chlorine compounds, which render the waste noninfectious

In addition to disinfection, some states and landfills require that medical waste is shredded to make the contents unrecognizable.

For a deeper look at the details of these processes, the Healthcare Environmental Resource Center provides a thorough discussion of the science behind the various treatment technologies for regulated medical waste.

While some facilities (typically large hospitals) treat their infectious waste on-site with their own equipment, the vast majority of healthcare providers hire an experienced medical waste management company to dispose of it properly. Medical waste disposal companies pick up infectious waste from healthcare facilities, transport it to a treatment site, then certify that the waste is disinfected and ultimately disposed of correctly. Hiring a trustworthy medical waste disposal company can help ensure healthcare facilities that they’ll remain compliant with the patchwork of federal, state and local regulations that govern the handling of biomedical waste.

Correct medical waste management plays an important role in keeping patients, staff and the environment safe from infectious materials. Next time you see a sharps container hanging on the wall, you’ll know that it does not get treated like any other trash can!

If you’re searching for a medical waste disposal service provider, MedSafe is one of the leading medical waste management companies in Tennessee and the Southeast. Contact us today to learn about solutions for your facility, or get a free quote for medical waste disposal service!