If your doctor’s office or hospital is a fully functioning clinic, it’s very likely you periodically need to dispose of expired medications and biohazardous waste. However, it’s obviously not as easy as simply throwing this material away. There are some very specific regulations and restrictions regarding what kinds of medications get disposed of in what fashion. One common practice used by doctors’ offices and hospitals alike is simply putting expired medication in red bag waste. This is not the protocol for properly disposing of hazardous waste, though, and could lead to fines being levied against the facility.

How Hospitals Should Handle Expired Hospital Medications and Red Bag Waste

What Is Red Bag Waste?

If expired medications and pharmaceuticals don’t constitute red bag waste, what does? This kind of waste is supposed to be reserved for blood-contaminated items—sharps (needles and syringes), gauze, gloves, and any other items that came in contact with blood.

These are the only items that are supposed to go in regulated medical waste bags, which means no expired medicines and no pharmaceuticals of any kind. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) laid out this policy. It stipulated that biomedical waste and drugs had to be separated and disposed of through different methods or it would constitute improper hazardous waste disposal.

Why Does Improper Drug Disposal Occur?

If the rules are so black and white regarding what does and doesn’t constitute this specific waste, why are doctors’ offices and (especially) hospitals violating these rules? It comes down to lack of enforcement. If a hospital or clinic was caught putting expired medicine samples in with biomedical waste, there could be fines—or even greater consequences, depending on the severity of the infraction.

However, these rules regarding disposing of all medical waste are in place with little to no regulation. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) simply has not stressed within the industry that some drugs meet the requirements for hazardous waste and, therefore, necessitate special disposal.

When the rules aren’t policed by the EPA and it’s not a point of emphasis with that governing body, it leaves little incentive for the hospitals or clinics to comply with the stringent letter of the law.

Is Change on the Way?

In recent years, there has been movement to enforce these laws more comprehensively, and many clinics and hospitals expect these regulations sooner rather than later.  This means if your hospital or clinic doesn’t start learning the rules and instituting compliance now, you leave yourself open to large fines and penalties when enforcement is inevitably standardized and regulated.

How Can My Clinic Get Ready?

If you’re overwhelmed by the prospect of learning all the rules of proper medication and pharmaceutical disposal in hospitals and implementing that throughout the team, it’s a good idea to reach out to a company that’s qualified to help on that front. A proper waste management company will be familiar with the proper regulations and protocol and can pass on that pertinent information to the proper parties within the clinic or hospital. It’s also a good idea to find a company that has both a hazardous waste and a biomedical waste transportation license. That way, the same company can dispose of your properly sorted, correctly handled regulated medical waste and expired medication. 

For more information about the protocol related to expired medication and what appropriately constitutes red bag waste, please contact a representative of MCF Environmental Services, providing professional medical waste services for hospitals.

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