Pharmaceutical Waste and Disposal

Pharmaceuticals are used for a wide variety of purposes—to help patients recover from illness, treat a disease, manage a chronic condition, etc. Yet even after being prescribed, many drugs go unused. So, understanding how to properly dispose of pharmaceutical waste is vital to any community. It’s also governed by strict, complex, and sometimes confusing regulations.

When mistakes are made and pharmaceutical waste isn’t disposed of properly, there’s a risk of harmful chemicals being released into the environment, which could contaminate water sources (including groundwater) as well as endanger plant, animal, and human life. It can also lead to large fines and negatively impact the good name of an organization.

It’s often tempting to simply wash unused drugs down in a sink or toilet or toss it into the trash, but this can lead to health and environmental concerns in the community. This practice (known as “sewering”) is also federally prohibited, and most states also have stringent regulations banning this practice.

Definition of Pharmaceutical Waste

Any leftover, unused, or expired medication and vaccines that can no longer be used is pharmaceutical waste. As such, it needs to be disposed of properly. Pharmaceutical waste consists of both hazardous and non-hazardous products, depending on the chemical compounds and what risks those may play for humans or the environment.

Pharmaceutical waste also includes contaminated products, such as items needed for the proper handling of pharmaceuticals, including bottles, vials, boxes, tubbing, and PPE like gloves and masks.

Who Regulates Pharmaceutical Waste Disposal?

Pharmaceutical waste can be categorized as either non-hazardous or hazardous waste. If it’s hazardous, it must be disposed of properly through a Hazardous Waste company.

Through the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (or RCRA, pronounced “rick-rah”), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been tasked with regulating the disposal of hazardous waste pharmaceuticals. This federal law informs how to classify and properly dispose of various pharmaceuticals. However, states often have additional protections, so it’s important to know state, federal, and local regulations for medical waste disposal.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has other regulations on how to transport pharmaceutical waste. And the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is in charge of managing controlled substance waste management. Other government agencies involved in the regulation of the proper disposal of pharmaceutical waste can include the Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS), OSHA, and the Joint Commission.

Depending on the size of the healthcare facility and the volume of pharmaceutical waste it creates as well as the amount of non-acute vs. acute hazardous waste, the regulations also vary.

Categories of Hazardous Pharmaceutical Waste

Three categories of pharmaceutical waste have been defined by the RCRA:

P-list waste is considered acutely hazardous. Pharmaceuticals in this category include a wide range of drugs from warfarin to epinephrine to nicotine and phentermine. This also consists of the containers that have carried P-list medications.

U-list waste is from discarded commercial chemical products and includes sulfuric acid, dimethyl ester, streptozotocin, cyclophosphamide, and many chemotherapy drugs.

A complete list of P-listed and U-listed chemicals can be found here.

Characteristic hazardous waste has one or more of four characteristics that indicate hazardous waste, such as:

  • Ignitability, with the flashpoint of below 60˚ C indicating how ignitable the compound is. This can include, for example, some cough syrups and flammable propellants found in aerosols.
  • Corrosivity, including acid and bases with a pH less than or equal to 2 or greater than or equal to 12.5, which can corrode steel.
  • Reactivity for chemicals that may react with water or heat that then give off toxic gases or detonate.
  • Toxicity,for chemicals that are toxic when ingested or absorbed.

The best way to determine how pharmaceutical waste should be treated is to follow the regulations under RCRA. Yet it’s also important to follow state and local regulations and those of specific facilities as well, which may have even more stringent guidelines.

Another way pharmaceutical waste is classified is by regulated medical waste, solid waste, or hazardous waste. This, however, typically depends on the state or locality.

Regardless of how pharmaceutical waste is classified, it needs to be disposed of properly. Even medications that haven’t been classified as hazardous, such as antidepressants, statins, antibiotics, or hormone replacement therapy can be damaging to the health and environment in the community.

How to Manage Pharmaceutical Waste

Disposing of pharmaceutical waste is a priority for any healthcare company, including pharmacies, clinics, hospitals, and more. While the guidelines from federal, state, and local governments can be confusing and strict, there are simple steps to help streamline the process:

  1. Separate pharmaceutical waste from biohazard waste, placing the biohazard waste in specified red biohazard waste containers.
  2. Segregate any controlled substances, such as opiates and benzodiazepines, as these must be handled in accordance with DEA regulations.
  3. Remove chemotherapy waste, even if there are only trace amounts, including empty vials and bottles, IV tubing, and even gloves, and place them in FDA compliant yellow containers. Bulk waste, such as unused medications, are to be treated as hazardous chemical waste.
  4. Separate hazardous waste, which poses a greater risk to the public, and place them in black containers specified for this purpose.
  5. Gather what’s left in white containers with blue lids to ensure any remaining pharmaceutical waste is also disposed of according to regulations.
  6. Finally, contact your preferred licensed pharmaceutical waste disposal service. Ensure your partner is licensed and up to date on all the regulations for your specific area.

123 Compliant Logistics makes your compliance with pharmaceutical waste as easy as 1-2-3. We help healthcare companies consolidate materials from numerous sources, manage the complexities, and ensure compliant handling and destruction. Services include:

  • Hazardous pharmaceutical waste
  • Large volumes of materials
  • Simple rate box programs for those with smaller quantities
  • Route services for qualified Arizona customers.
  • Direct ship

Simply stated, we take our customers out of the waste management business.

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