Medical Waste Industry Insights

Waste Management 101: What Is Medical Waste and Who Regulates It?

By David Ryan


WHAT Is Medical Waste?

Regulated medical waste (RMW), also known as biohazardous waste or infectious medical waste, is the portion of the wastestream that may be contaminated by blood, body fluids or other potentially infectious materials (OPIM), thus posing a significant risk of transmitting infection.

For healthcare facilities, the majority of medical waste generated is from gauze or sharps (needles, scalpels and pipets), and contrary to common belief, human or animal parts are rarely discarded as medical waste. In a healthcare or lab setting, human and animal tissue are considered pathological medical waste that must be incinerated, gasified or chemically digested. Luckily, these waste streams make up less than 5 percent of the total medical waste generated.

WHO Regulates Medical Waste?

Federal Government

Like anything else that is heavily regulated, medical waste is subject to the jurisdiction of several federal, state, and local agencies. The most prominently referenced federal agencies for regulations are as follows:

  • Department of Labor (DOL); with many regulations occurring through Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s (OSHA) Bloodborne Pathogen Standards.
  • Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) in regards to infection control and prevention.
  • Department of Transportation (DOT) in regards to safe packaging handling and shipping of RMW materials.
  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA) To a lesser extent, the FDA has some oversight when it comes to approved sharps collection containers in the clinical setting.

State and Local Agencies

In addition to federal agencies, many of the regulations with which Healthcare facilities and medical waste generators must comply are state and local regulatory agencies. This includes state public health and sanitary codes, as well some state environmental agencies.

For example, in the state of Massachusetts, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has very specific laws in regards to documentation and transportation of medical waste, and the state sanitary code requires that generators have at least one medical waste pickup per year to comply with laws limiting the amount of time infectious waste can be stored for.

Rhode Island has similar laws through its division of waste management, with state laws requiring facilities to register with the state as a waste generator. (We will explore the specific state and local compliance standards in upcoming posts.)

The Biggest Takeaways for Healthcare Facilities

As a waste generator, your organization is legally responsible for the proper disposal of medical waste. However, a reputable waste management company will understand the specific requirements at the local and state level, relieving much of the burden for healthcare facility managers.

That said, even once you’re working with a reputable provider, there are a few critical steps to keep in mind. You should always ensure chain of custody and occasionally audit your service provider -- and their approved end sites -- to be absolutely sure that your waste is being managed correctly and that your facility is checking all the boxes in terms of regulatory compliance. (Also, for your own financial protection, you’ll want to make sure your provider is serving your financial interests -- more here on how to do that.)


Be sure to follow United Medical Waste for more detailed information, such as state specific requirements for managing medical waste. Also, feel free to contact us anytime with questions.


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