Written by Megan Chamberlain
31 Mar 2021

What Is Medical Waste?

When asked what medical waste is, many people reply something along the lines of “Well, it’s anything used in medical care that ends up in a trashcan.”

Not exactly....

Healthcare providers including hospital networks, clinics, specialty practices, and the physicians and employees who work there should know that medical waste categories and definitions are much more complicated than that.

Knowing what is legally and environmentally considered regulated medical waste not only enhances safety for healthcare providers and caregivers, but also improves safety and wellness for the general public and the environment.




Don’t lump medical waste into a single category

Medical waste is not handled, stored, or disposed of the same way “across-the-board”. For example, pharmaceutical waste isn’t disposed of the same way as potentially infectious personal protective equipment (PPE). Sharps are not thrown (or shouldn’t be) into just any old trashcan, but in specific and carefully placed sharps containers to prevent inadvertent needlestick injury, contamination, or available (and sometimes reused) by unauthorized users. In any healthcare environment, every individual working in that facility should know how to categorize different medical waste streams for appropriate biomedical waste management. That means the ability to segregate different types of medical waste into appropriate containers and then temporarily stored (appropriately) until final disposal.

Medical waste management guidelines and regulations of federal and state regulatory agencies are very specific. You can’t mess around with medical waste unless you want to risk massive fines, loss of reputation, and potential exposure of harmful substances to your employees.

Federal and state guidelines identify medical waste streams by their type and purpose. For example:

  • Anatomical waste is often also called pathological waste typically created through surgical, biopsy, or autopsy procedures.
  • Pharmaceutical waste or drug waste, can include unused medications or drugs, discontinued or expired drugs, or those that have been contaminated. Chemotherapy waste is a subcategory of pharmaceutical waste. Chemotherapy waste is also considered a hazardous waste.

Note: Guidelines and recommendations at the federal or state level often interchange terminology used in biomedical waste management. The same applies to biohazard waste, which can be considered hazardous or infectious waste depending on state or entity.

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers their definition of medical waste as any “solid waste which is generated in the diagnosis, treatment, or immunization of human beings or animals.” That can define anything from protect personal equipment (PPE) to needles, syringes, bandages, or biopsy tissues, and more.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offers their definition of medical waste as any “red bag or infectious waste containing blood or bodily fluids that are: pourable, dripable, squeezable, or flexible.” This definition seems to imply that medical waste is only something that contains blood or blood products or other body fluids. It does focus on infectious waste, which is also often termed as biohazardous waste.

  • Microbiological waste is typically also classified as a type of infectious waste that includes any biological materials including live vaccines or cultures dishes found in a laboratory, but can also pretty much define anything that increases the risk of infection to someone handling it.


How to correctly handle medical waste 

When it comes to medical waste management, the point is to know what is considered medical waste and how to handle it properly. Knowing how to separate different types of medical waste in any healthcare environment is important not only to maintain compliance, but to ensure safety and efficiency.

Know the difference between regulated and non-regulated medical waste. Follow guidelines of the EPA in identifying regulated medical waste, or any type of infectious medical or biohazard waste.

  • Did you know that vomit, saliva, urine, feces, or other bodily fluids that don’t contain blood are not considered or categorized as medical waste?
  • Do you know the difference between clinical waste and biomedical waste?
  • What about the difference between infectious medical waste and pathological waste?

Don’t get confused. They’re all considered biomedical waste.

What is considered medical waste? Break that question down to be more specific. For example, what exactly is biomedical waste? Biomedical waste is defined as any type of medical waste that has the potential to be hazardous or infectious to humans. This can include anything; clothing, body parts, or blood contaminated with some type of substance such as a pathogen that can cause illness or disease.

Medical waste segregation: points to remember

1 /  Know the Difference Between Regulated and Non-Regulated Medical Waste.

The vast majority of medical waste is unregulated but those producing it (medical waste generators) need to follow basic guidelines for collection, storage, and disposal of such waste.

2 / Know the difference between waste categories.

Instruct every employee in the healthcare facility to identify and properly classify the different medical waste streams produced by that facility. This is important to avoid mixing different types of waste, which is against many federal and state regulations.


Refer to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) for specifics regarding guidelines involving segregation, handling, storage, and transportation and disposal of both hazardous and non-hazardous waste.

Pay attention to the regulations for the proper containment, storage, and disposal of different waste streams. For example, biohazard waste (such as blood products, IV tubing, infectious waste, or contaminated PPE) is to be disposed of in red regulated medical waste containers or red liners inside containers.

Sharps - not just needles - but also scalpels, staples, syringes, or any implement or tool with a sharp edge is to be placed in an approved sharps container. Sharps container placement is also important, not only in reducing inadvertent needlestick injuries, but to reduce availability and potential dangers to patients, the general public, and to keep them out of landfills.

For specific guidelines for identification and standards applicable to waste segregation, handling, storage and disposal, refer to the Code of Federal Regulations Title 40. Hazardous waste determinations can be found under Section 262.11 and aid waste generators in determining whether wastes are hazardous or not. Turn to the RCRA as well as state governmental agencies for determinations for proper medical waste management in your state, county, and facility.

Daniels Health encourages safety and compliance

Daniels Health encourages all medical waste generators to adopt the cradle-to-grave approach. This isn’t just a recommendation. It’s the law. Know what it is and what it entails. We’re here to guide you through state and federal regulations to ensure that your medical waste is handled, segregated, stored, and disposed of properly. This ensures not only compliance, but safety for your facility and your employees. Call us today for help setting up a workable and safe healthcare waste management system. 


855 251 2655         Request a quote



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Megan Chamberlain

Megan Chamberlain

Content Strategist

With a little bit of knowledge about a lot of things and a quick wit, Megan was the recipient of the Daniels Pun-Master Award 2017 and is the go-to for fun analogies to explain healthcare waste.