Where Does Biohazardous Waste Go?

We are often in the habit of throwing something out and forgetting about it. We don’t think about the consequences of plastics accumulating in landfills, or what happens if we dispose of something that has the potential to spread infections to others. 

Thankfully, there are several guidelines for the proper disposal of biohazardous waste, and many businesses comply with these standards. Do you know the proper handling procedure for biohazardous waste, and where it goes once it’s placed in a red bag or bin?

What is Considered Biohazardous Waste?

First of all, what is biohazardous waste? Any type of potentially infectious waste falls under the umbrella of biohazardous waste. This includes:

  • Blood

  • Body fluids

  • Human or animal cells

Laboratory waste is also considered biohazard waste, and can include the following:

  • Cultures

  • Bacteria

  • Virus

  • Parasite

  • Mold

Anything used in the lab, or produced by the lab, is also a biohazard and must be disposed of properly. This includes paper towels, gloves, or Petri dishes.

Medical waste can also be categorized as biohazardous, and it often includes “sharps” in addition to blood, body fluids, and human cells. Not all medical waste, however, is a biohazard.

What are Sharps?

Sharps are any instruments with ridged corners, edges, or points that could pierce or cut.

  • Blades

  • Broken glass

  • Hypodermic needles

  • Syringes

Anything created as a result of biological research or medical treatment requires a specific protocol for sterilization and disposal. Here’s what that may look like.

Disposing of Biohazardous Waste

Much of our waste is buried in landfills around the world. Biohazardous waste, however, should be disposed of differently to avoid contamination in the soil, water, and air. Over time, we’ve learned better ways to deal with trash, a process you can read about HERE on the Western Elite blog.

As for biohazardous waste, the Medical Waste Tracking Act was enacted in 1988 to oversee how it’s dealt with. This was in response to medical waste washing up on beaches, which was not only a health hazard but a problem for businesses that relied on beachgoers to keep them operating.

Proper Disposal

Depending on the type of waste, there are a couple of standard methods for properly disposing of biomed materials.


About 90% of biohazardous waste is incinerated. This doesn’t mean you can just burn medical waste; proper incineration is carried out by licensed professionals who are trained to handle, transport, and incinerate biowaste. After incineration, this waste is sent to a sanitary landfill.


Steam sterilization is another popular and effective method for treating contaminated material. After it’s cleaned, the biowaste is shredded and sent to a sanitary landfill.

Disposing of Medical Waste

Plastic surgeons, medical research facilities, and even people managing their diabetes at home produce medical waste. Barr Aesthetics is an establishment that specializes in procedures such as Botox, which was administered over 7 million times in 2018. That’s a lot of hypodermic needles! To remain in good standing, offices such as Barr Aesthetics have biohazard waste collection bags or bins, which you’ll recognize as being red, and having labels such as “biohazard,” and/or “infectious waste.”

Regular waste should not be mixed with biohazard waste, nor should sharps be lumped in with biohazardous or medical waste. Once the medical waste is bagged, it should only be picked up by licensed biohazardous waste haulers. They can come to places of business, or residential homes; if that service is not available to you, seek out drop-off locations such as a drug store, hospital, or nursing home.

Recycling Medical Plastics

Not all medical waste is considered hazardous. In fact, some non-infected plastic products used in healthcare settings can be recycled. While it can be a laborious process, recycling is always worth it for the environment.

Much like any plastic that’s en route for recycling, medical plastics must be sorted. There are additional steps along the way, however, as the materials need to be sanitized to reduce the spread of infection or contamination. After sterilization, medical plastics can be recycled in one of four ways:

Primary Recycling

Also known as closed-loop recycling, medical plastics can be repurposed with similar or new materials to create something in the same family as what the plastic used to be (i.e. plastic water bottles from a hospital are recycled to make new plastic water bottles).

Secondary Recycling

This tier of recycling medical plastics involves repurposing the processed plastic for completely new products. If the plastic loses its integrity in the sanitizing and grinding process, it may be used for making something like floor tiles instead of new medical equipment.

Tertiary Recycling

In this type of recycling, the plastic changes form from solid to liquid or gas. The recycled plastic can then be used to synthetically create chemicals and fuel.


If medical plastics are too highly contaminated to be sterilized, they can still be recycled vs dumped in landfills. There are pollutants produced in the incineration process, which need to be neutralized to avoid contaminating the air. Incineration is a useful method, however, because it reduces the volume of plastic waste while also eliminating the risk of infection or human contamination.


According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), each instance of improper biohazardous or medical waste disposal can result in fines ranging from $5,000 to $70,000. These OSHA fines could also be coupled with fines from state and federal agencies including:

  • The Department of Transportation (DOT)

  • The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

  • The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)

  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

If it’s determined that any biomedical waste was mishandled, other penalties include jail time or having your business shut down.

Where Biohazardous Waste Ends Up

Now that you know how biomed waste is collected and treated, where does it go? Some of it will end up in sanitary landfills.

What’s a Sanitary Landfill?

If any waste has been treated to biological or chemical contamination, it will be sent to a specific landfill that keeps it isolated. They’re a storage area for waste that needs time to become inert. While the waste is in a sanitary landfill, systems are in place to prevent material from leaching into the ground, and any fluid runoff is drained. Methane gases produced during decomposition are also collected and neutralized to reduce harmful emissions that impact the ozone layer.

A sanitary landfill is designed to be monitored for decades to ensure there are no compromises to the design, and the waste is being properly stored until it’s no longer an infectious risk. 

While not perfect, a sanitary landfill is at least proactively monitoring the potential effects that waste can have on our environment. Sending properly treated biohazardous and medical waste here is, without a doubt, a better alternative to tossing used medical supplies in a curbside trash bin.

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