When you don’t dispose of medical waste properly, it can be extremely dangerous—for your family, community and the sanitation workers who have to handle it. That’s why it’s so important to get it right.

What is it?

First off, you’re probably wondering exactly what medical waste is. It’s any type of waste that might contain infectious material. Examples include dialysis waste, sharps (needles and lancets), catheters and colostomy bags. Many households don’t produce this kind of waste, but if yours does, safe disposal is absolutely key.

Why is it a problem?

Medical waste is a public health hazard. That’s why you should never toss it in the garbage, recycling or flush it down the toilet (yes, people do this). When these dangerous items are incorrectly disposed of, you put people at serious risk, especially the sanitation workers who have to handle it.

What do I do with it?

All sharps should go in a sharps container. If your pharmacy doesn’t have them, your community recycling center should—oh, and in most cases, they're absolutely free. Once you’ve contained your sharps and ensured nobody can get pricked, you can drop them off with other medical waste at your local recycling center. You can also mail your sharps, as long as they’ve been safely packaged.

Some communities will accept medical waste like catheters, colostomy bags, and gastric and nasal tubes in the garbage with the caveat that they’re double-bagged. Before you do this, though, confirm with yours first. Better to be safe than sorry, which is why we recommend dropping off all medical waste at the appropriate recycling center.

What about expired pills and pharmaceuticals?

While expired pills don’t qualify as medical waste, they can also cause some problems. That’s because when they’re not correctly disposed of, they end up getting in the soil and water. In fact, a recent study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found evidence of 32 personal care products and pharmaceuticals in Lake Michigan. 14 of these were found at concentrations that are of medium or high risk to the environment.

This issue is by no means limited to Lake Michigan. It’s everywhere, wreaking havoc on wildlife and dramatically changing the world around us. To reduce the impact these chemicals have, make sure to bring your expired meds back to the pharmacy, and they’ll dispose of them for you. Alternatively, your city might have a take-back program.

If your community is part of the Recycle Coach network, feel free to download our app—it’s absolutely free. We’ll give you information for your nearest drop-off location and fill you in on how to best manage your all household waste.