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All About NDEE: Medical Waste Disposal

Medical waste is generated every day throughout the state in homes, hospitals, and medical facilities. How this waste is disposed depends on where it was generated and if it’s considered infectious.

“Medical Waste” is an industry term for waste generated via healthcare activities, yet it is the term most of us are most familiar with. Most medical waste is not dangerous, and a majority of it goes to permitted landfills like any other solid waste. However, some medical wastes can also be considered infectious wastes.

Nebraska solid waste regulations define infectious waste as being a greater risk to human health than regular solid waste. Infectious waste is any medical waste that is capable of causing disease in another human if that person comes into contact with the waste. Title 132 – Integrated Solid Waste Management Regulations, chapter 1 contains a full regulatory definition of infectious waste.

How infectious waste is disposed depends on where it was generated. The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) regulations and guidance documents can provide Nebraskans information on how to safely dispose of their infectious wastes.

Household Infectious waste

Household infectious waste results from health care activities that take place in homes and generally are handled differently than infectious waste generated in healthcare settings. These wastes may include bandages, hypodermic needles, and lancets, among other things.

Generally, household medical wastes are considered a solid waste and not a serious health concern, which means they can be disposed in a permitted municipal solid waste landfill. However, if it is also an infectious waste there are a few safety precautions needed before they can go to the landfill

It’s important to properly package infectious waste to protect the people who handle household waste after it leaves a home. NDEE recommends the following guidelines for packaging, transporting, or disposing infectious waste generated in the home:
1. Place the waste in a rigid or semi-rigid, puncture-resistant, and leak-proof container;
2. Do not mark or label the container in such a way as to divulge the contents;
3. Tightly close or seal the container; and
4. Ensure the outside of the container is free from contamination.

Any type of sharp medical wastes, such as needles or lancets, should be placed in a puncture-resistant container whether it is infectious or not. You may wish to obtain a sharps container designed for the purpose of sharps disposal; often they have a one-way opening and come with warning labels. These safety guidelines will help protect family members and waste handlers from possible cuts, punctures, or exposure to disease vectors.

NDEE considers living quarters of nursing homes and assisted living facilities as that resident’s household, which means infectious waste generated there is a household waste. Infectious waste generated in common areas of the facilities, such as a nursing station or exam room, is not considered a household waste and cannot be placed in the general trash. Hospital rooms are also not considered households.

Unused or expired prescription drugs can never be disposed down a sanitary sewer or septic system. There are nationwide EPA regulations forbidding disposal down the drain. These substances can pollute aquifers and waterways and expose fish and wildlife to the pharmaceuticals. The best way to manage prescription drugs is to only procure the amount you need and follow a doctor’s instructions on the medication’s intended use and keep using it until gone.

However, life happens and sometimes you do end up with leftover medications. NDEE recommends taking old, unused or unneeded medications to a local collection event. Or visit the Nebraska MEDS Coalition website to find a disposal location near you.

Business Medical waste

Most medical or veterinary facilities may dispose of their wastes at a permitted municipal solid waste landfill as long as the waste has not been contaminated with something that is considered infectious. This may include dressings, laboratory wastes, or animal bedding, among other items. The landfill or hauler may have additional restrictions or requirements.

Infectious waste generated at healthcare facilities or veterinary clinics must first be rendered non-infectious by incineration, autoclaving, or other effective treatment methods. Once the waste has been rendered non-infectious, it may be disposed at a municipal solid waste landfill. Remember, that the waste generated in common areas of assisted living facilities and nursing homes is not household waste, it must be managed correctly as a business waste.

Hazardous waste generated at a healthcare facility should not be mixed with medical or infectious wastes. Title 128 – Nebraska Hazardous Waste Regulations requires small quantity and large quantity generators of hazardous waste to dispose of that waste at a permitted hazardous waste facility.

NDEE has several guidance documents on its website that go into more detail about disposing of medical wastes, including Handling Household Medical Waste, Medications and Infectious Waste Disposal, and Medical Waste Disposal.