According to a June 2020 article by Practice Greenhealth, a nonprofit organization dedicated to positive environmental stewardship in healthcare organizations, hospitals produce an average of nearly 30 pounds of waste per person each day. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with more disposable personal protective equipment (PPE) being used, waste has increased, the organization notes

Nurses often interact with all types of that waste.

“Pretty much every type of waste that there is in healthcare, nurses come into contact with it,” said Sara Wohlford, MPH, RN, Efficiency and Sustainability Manager at Carilion Clinic in Roanoke, Va.

The role of nurses to safely dispose of waste is not just important to their personal safety, but also to the health and safety of patients and the bottom line of healthcare facilities.

“What nursing has done really well when it comes to waste, especially during this time of COVID-19,” Wohlford said, “is taking a really hard look at everything they’re using and disposing of and making sure that they are properly protected and their patients are properly protected.”

Nurses also focus on the impact of costs. “Nursing is really concerned about not generating extra waste that’s going to just cost their patients and their healthcare system money,” Wohlford said.

Types of Medical Waste

  • General waste: Non-hazardous materials that do not present any particular hazard.
  • Infectious waste: Materials contaminated with blood or bodily fluids and waste from patients with infections.
  • Pathological waste: Examples can include human tissues, organs, or fluids.
  • Chemical waste: WHO says this can include solvents, disinfectants, and heavy metals contained in medical devices, such as batteries.
  • Cytotoxic waste: This type includes hazardous substances that can be carcinogens, such as cytotoxic drugs used in cancer treatment.
  • Radioactive waste: According to the University of Pittsburgh’s Radiation Safety Office, this can include contaminated materials or syringes used in nuclear medicine procedures or waste generated from radiation oncology or Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanning.
  • Sharps waste: This category includes syringes, needless, disposable scalpels, and blades.
  • Pharmaceutical waste: WHO defines this as “expired, unused, and contaminated drugs and vaccines.”