Waste Not, Want Not

In the year 1987 medical waste became a national issue when syringes, needles and other medical wastes began to wash up on the shores of New Jersey. There were multiple episodes that both posed danger to the general public and revealed a potential healthcare-created environmental disaster. It was obvious that many hospitals and laboratories were not properly handling and disposing of their wastes. In the ensuing years, many laws and regulations were put into place that affect how labs and hospitals should handle their many different types of wastes. How is waste segregated in your areas? Do you separate regular waste from biohazard trash? Do you store chemical wastes in a room or department away from the lab? Some of these practices are not safe, and others may harm the environment and break the law.

There are multiple waste streams generated in the lab. Staff should be aware of each, and they should handle each differently. While a few waste streams may be combined legally, it is important not to do so in order to reduce department expenses and in order to protect the environment. Regular (non-hazardous) waste includes paper items, specimen transport bags, and gauze pads used for disinfection. In many areas of the country, items that are not visibly dripping with blood or body fluids (saturated) can be placed into regular waste containers. These items might include disposable lab coats, plastic transfer pipettes, and gloves. Knowledge of proper disposal here is key- fines can be levied against the hospital or lab for disposing of bloody items into the local landfills. Also, in many states, any item with a biohazard symbol may not be disposed of into the regular waste stream, even if the item is clean. Be careful about tossing away biohazard-labeled specimen transport bags.

Another common lab waste includes Regulated Medical Waste (RMW) which encompasses biohazard waste and biohazard sharps. RMW should be placed into containers that are closable and constructed to contain all contents and to prevent fluids from leaking during handling, storage, transport, or shipping. If the lab is responsible for changing its own biohazard waste bags, they should be tied in such a way that the bags will not leak (i.e. the use of a gooseneck knot rather than a square knot). Then the bags need to be placed into a container with a tight-fitting lid for removal from the department. It is not a requirement that RMW trash containers in use in the lab have a lid (unless it is a sharps container). RMW removal is expensive, and it is typically charged by weight. Sharps container disposal is also charged by weight and is much more expensive than bag disposal since these containers are usually incinerated.

This is why trash segregation in the lab is critical, and teaching it to staff is not difficult. Some biohazard waste ends up in biohazard landfills. These landfills are more expensive to create and to maintain, and the potential for environmental contamination is greater than from standard municipal landfills. If environmental concerns aren’t a motivator on the lab, then cost may be. Throwing items into biohazard trash bags and sharps containers that do not belong there creates unnecessary spending. That money would be better utilized for product purchases, equipment, and salaries. Many labs decide it is easier to provide only biohazard trash containers and no waste education. That is not a good practice.

A third lab waste is Hazardous or Chemical waste. Often hazardous waste is removed from the lab via a contracted waste handler which may charge the lab by chemical weight, number of barrels, or even time spent in waste collection.  Final disposal of the chemical waste usually occurs via incineration, fuel blending, or even burial. Once hazardous waste is generated in the lab, the labeling, storage and tracking of it become vital processes that must be properly managed. A Satellite Accumulation Area (SAA) is a place in the lab where chemical waste may be temporarily stored before it is moved to a Central Accumulation Area or until it is picked up for final disposal. The SAA should be within view of the point of generation of the waste- you should not move the waste to another area unless that area is a CAA. A Central Accumulation Area (CAA) is where hazardous waste is stored until it is picked up for final disposal at an outside facility. These regulations about chemical waste may vary by facility depending on the facility’s EPA waste designation- bit that’s a topic for another time. If you aren’t aware of that designation, speak to your facility director to find out.

Some laboratories generate other types of waste that may need consideration. Radioactive waste, universal waste (batteries, light bulbs), and mixed wastes (hazardous and radioactive) all need to be managed and require proper disposal. Labs should also look at waste reduction methods such as solid and liquid recycling and replacement of hazardous chemicals.

Performing waste audits is the final step in the waste program management. Reviewing regulations, physically inspecting lab waste streams, and reviewing waste records will help you understand what your lab needs are. If you need help with training, contact your waste vendors, they may have the education materials you need. Management of the laboratory waste program is important, and it accomplishes multiple goals – money savings, regulatory compliance, and the safety of your staff.


Scungio 1

-Dan Scungio, MT(ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ) has over 25 years experience as a certified medical technologist. Today he is the Laboratory Safety Officer for Sentara Healthcare, a system of seven hospitals and over 20 laboratories and draw sites in the Tidewater area of Virginia. He is also known as Dan the Lab Safety Man, a lab safety consultant, educator, and trainer.


One thought on “Waste Not, Want Not”

  1. Great article. I work for a manufacturer of lab consumables and we understand how challenging the management of lab waste can be. We have developed some long-term biodegradable products to help the environment when the wastes are not incinerated, but this remains costly for most labs. I think the best approach for plastic products at the moment it to look out for good quality products that will work fine the very first time. It’s too sad to throw away a urine container because it’s leaking, you have to use 2 instead of only 1. Same for gloves, cheap gloves that break all the time will generate more waste than good quality gloves.

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