Doctors’ offices and hospitals are bound to end up with expired medications. However, as with many items under the umbrella of medical waste, you cannot simply throw those medications in the trash. Rather, they must be properly disposed of. Making the process even more complicated, though, is the fact that not all expired medications should be stored, containerized, and treated the same. For environmental safety and to comply with all relevant regulations, you need to be aware of the different categories of expired medications and the protocol associated with each. Knowing how to dispose of expired medication properly constitutes a large part of safe medical waste disposal.

Best Methods for Properly Disposing of Expired Medications

Medications and Red Bags

Red bags are exclusively used for regulated medical waste—items that have been in contact with or contaminated by blood or other potentially infectious materials. Medications do not qualify under the definition of regulated medical waste. Therefore, these medications should never get lumped in with red bag waste. Putting expired medication in red bag waste constitutes a violation of the regulations related to proper waste disposal. 

Whether the medications are classified as hazardous or not, they still shouldn’t go into red bags. Again, red bags are exclusively for gauze, gloves, contaminated sharps, and all other items that have come in contact with enough blood or other material to potentially spread blood-borne pathogens.

Why Shouldn’t Waste Medication Be Mixed with Regulated Medical Waste?

All red bag waste is treated with a sterilization process called autoclaving. This essentially uses a large oven that’s heated to approximately 300 degrees, and the regulated medical waste is exposed to that temperature for fifty minutes to an hour. This kills all the bacteria in the blood or other potentially infectious materials, and with that bacteria killed, the items can then safely be shipped to a landfill.

However, if expired medication samples are included in red bag waste, those medicines will only be exposed to the autoclaving, which is not sufficient to properly treat the medications. Hazardous medications thrown into standard garbage after autoclaving are not considered properly treated. They remain hazardous, which obviously poses a large environmental risk.

Improper disposal and treatment such as this also puts your office or facility out of compliance with federal regulations.

What’s the Protocol for Disposing of Hazardous Medication?

Medications that have been deemed hazardous waste (as established by RCRA) need to go into specialized incinerators. These run at much higher temperatures than autoclaves and turn hazardous medicine waste into nonhazardous waste.

What’s the Protocol for Disposing of Nonhazardous Medication?

If your office or clinic has expired nonhazardous medication, those items still can’t go directly into the garbage. They need to be placed in separate containers (provided by a medical waste management company) to be shipped to proper treatment facilities.

These pharmaceutical waste containers come in a variety of gallon sizes and should be labeled differently than biohazardous waste to clearly differentiate the contents.

Properly Identifying Hazardous Medications

It’s the responsibility of the hospital, clinic, doctor’s office, or facility to know what medications they have that are considered hazardous under RCRA standards. Differentiating what’s hazardous is extremely important because improper identification (and subsequent disposal) can lead to serious environmental contamination as well as making your facility liable to fines or other punitive action for noncompliance with medication waste regulations.

If your facility is using a full-service medical waste management company, that company can review your formulary and ascertain for you what you have that’s hazardous. They can also determine if the chemicals within certain nonhazardous items will become hazardous if combined or brought into contact with each other. If you’re at all unsure or confused about this process, then this highly technical job is best left to your medical waste management company and their trained, knowledgeable professionals who know exactly what they’re looking for and how to handle, classify, containerize, transport, and dispose of hazardous medications.

For more information about how to properly dispose of expired medications, please contact a representative of MCF Environmental Services a full-service medical waste management company

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