5 ways to reduce the amount of medical waste in your workplace

Did you know the cost to dispose of medical waste can be 10 times greater than the cost to dispose of regular (non-regulated) solid waste? Studies suggest that businesses and facilities can realistically decrease regulated medical waste to just 6-10% of their total waste.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) goes even further, suggesting that only 3-5% of all medical waste truly needs to be disposed of as regulated medical waste. The smaller the percentage of medical waste, the safer your work environment and the greater your savings. So if you're wondering how to reduce medical waste and hit these benchmarks, the answer is simple. If you work towards workplace safety, you work towards hitting your goals.

Two trash cans identifying the difference between waste management strategies for workplace safety

Workplace safety strategies

1. Understand the OSHA definition of medical waste.

The occupational safety and health administration definition is a broadly accepted standard of medical waste. Understanding the definition of what is medical waste can help you to reduce your businesses medical waste production greatly.

OSHA defines regulated waste as "liquid or semi-liquid blood or other potentially infectious material (OPIM); contaminated items that would release blood or OPIM in a liquid or semi-liquid state if compressed; items that are caked with dried blood or OPIM and are capable of releasing these materials during handling; contaminated sharps; and pathological and microbiological wastes containing blood or OPIM".

Proper disposal of any material falling under the OSHA guidelines is necessary to uphold a safe workplace. Our article on identifying your medical waste can give you further insight on how to proceed.


2. Limit access to red bags.

Red bags are used for the disposal of harmful and hazardous waste within patient rooms. Keep red bags out of patients’ rooms and visiting areas. Patients and visitors do not see any harm in tossing papers, food containers or empty soda cans into regulated medical waste containers in the room, even when warning signs are clearly posted. Avoid the problem by limiting access to red bags to authorized personnel who are trained on the difference between what is true medical waste and what can be disposed of elsewhere.


3. Institute safer disposal options.

If it isn’t possible to remove the red bags completely, use small medical waste containers in patient rooms. Large containers make it too easy for staff and patients to use them as regular trash bins. Place red bags away from regular trashcans in patient rooms. And of course, make sure medical waste bins are properly marked.


4. Train your staff.

There are many misconceptions and misunderstandings about what can be classified as ordinary solid waste which can lead to workplace injuries or illness. Staff members may take the “better to be safe than sorry” approach and dispose of anything they’re not sure about as medical waste. Make sure your facility’s waste management policies and practices are well defined and clearly communicated. Create a safe working environment by encouraging an attitude of “if you’re not sure, ask”, instead of “if you’re not sure, put it in a red bag”.

You may be surprised at the impact training can make. Ask your medical waste provider to hold a training session for your staff members. Review what can be treated as regular solid waste, what can be recycled, and what is truly medical waste. Think of training as an ongoing requirement – new staffers need to be trained and experienced personnel need reminders and updates. This training can accompany other annual training requirements such as OSHA Bloodborne Pathogen and Personal Protective Equipment Training as a supplement.


5. Recycle when possible.

More things in healthcare facilities are recyclable than staff may realize. For example, plastic items, such as IV bags, can be melted down, which sterilizes the plastic and makes it reusable. Of course, it is important to balance patient safety and costs along with the environmental impact.

Some recycling facilities may resist accepting things they consider to be medical waste, even if the items are not regulated medical waste, so you may need to do some research about what recycling facilities in your area will accept. You can also check with your medical waste provider for guidance or a waste audit.

Still, there are a number of ways to reduce medical waste through recycling. A good idea is to choose one or two things to start with, and train your staff to put those things into a recycling bin. You might even have a contest to reward the staff if certain recycling and waste reduction goals are met.


Recycling cuts down on medical waste and costs, promotes workplace safety and health, and is also beneficial for the environment. This is becoming more important to people like patients, business associates, and investors in for-profit hospitals. Reducing medical waste can have a real impact on the cost of managing waste disposal at your facility -- so getting started today with these five actionable tips can make a big difference!

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