An Overview of Medical Waste Disposal

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What is medical waste?

Medical waste refers to waste generated at healthcare facilities such as clinics, hospitals, blood banks, dental practices, physician offices, veterinary hospitals, as well as laboratories and medical research facilities. According to the Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988, "Medical Waste is defined as any solid waste that is generated in the diagnosis, treatment, or immunization of human beings or animals, in research pertaining thereto, or in the production or testing of biologicals".

Some of the most common waste materials include discarded surgical instruments, discarded surgical gloves, culture dishes and other glassware, blood-soaked bandages, discarded lancets, removed body organs, cultures, stocks, swabs used to inoculate cultures, and discarded needles.

How much of medical waste is hazardous?

Medical waste is viewed to be harmful and hazardous.  More precisely, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that around 85 percent of total medical waste generated worldwide is non-hazardous. The remaining 15 percent is considered hazardous which can be toxic, radioactive or infectious. According to WHO, every year, about 16 billion injections are administered worldwide. Unfortunately, not all of the needles and syringes are disposed of properly. 

What are the risks associated with medical waste?

According to WHO, healthcare or medical waste contains potentially dangerous microorganisms which can infect hospital workers, patients, and others.

The risks associated with medical waste also include sharps-inflicted injuries, radiation burns, pollution and poisoning through the release of pharmaceutical products, in particular, cytotoxic and antibiotics drugs. Damage can occur at the time of incineration as it releases toxic compounds or elements such as dioxins or mercury.

How is medical waste processed?

In 2015, a joint UNICEF/WHO assessment found that over one-half (58 percent) of sampled medical facilities from 24 different countries had an adequate system in place to dispose of medical waste. As medical waste has a great number of health risks, the remaining 42 percent represents a concerning amount of facilities without sufficient safeguards in place.

Current Disposal Method: The most common way of disposing of medical waste is incineration. One of the most notable problems with the incineration of medical waste, however, is the inclusion of unsuitable materials or inadequate incineration which can result in the release of pollutants into the air and of ash residue. Incinerated wastes containing chlorine can produce furans and dioxins, which are human carcinogens. These have been linked to adverse health effects. Incineration of various metals such as cadmium, mercury, and lead can lead to the release of toxic metals into the environment. Currently, only a few modern incinerators with special gas-cleaning equipment and operating at 850-1000 °C can comply with the international emission standards for dioxins and furans.

Alternative Methods of Incineration: Alternate methods include autoclaving, which utilizes steam and pressure to sterilize the waste, as well as microwaving.The disposal method used differs from facility to facility, depending upon the specific state or national regulations.


Laws and regulations

Two of the most relevant acts about medical waste management in the U.S. are the Medical Waste Tracking Act (MWTA) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The Medical Waste Management Program (MWMP) regulates the generation, handling, storage, treatment, and disposal of medical waste.

The business opportunity surrounding medical waste disposal

Given the challenges associated with medical waste disposal for medical facilities, opportunities exist for solution providers to offer practical solutions, thereby allowing medical providers to focus on their core activities. As medical waste disposal is a highly regulated industry, however, there are significant barriers to entry for an entrepreneur regarding the requirements for transportation, handling, and incineration.

The current value of the medical waste industry globally is over $10 billion, anticipated to grow to $13 billion by 2020. According to, the major operators in this industry include BioMedical Waste Solutions, LLC (U.S.), Clean Harbors, Inc. (U.S.), Daniels Sharpsmart, Inc. (U.S.), REMONDIS Medison GmbH (Germany), Republic Services, Inc. (U.S.), Sharps Compliance, Inc. (U.S.), Stericycle, Inc. (U.S.), Suez Environnement S.A. (France), Veolia Environnement S.A. (France), and Waste Management, Inc. (U.S.).