What is medical waste?

Medical waste is a type of waste that is directly generated by the healthcare system. This can include an incredibly wide range of objects, including sharps (needles, syringes, scalpels), biohazardous waste (chemicals, bodily fluids), and nonhazardous waste (food containers and dishes, PPE). This includes waste generated by hospitals, clinics, research labs, and private practices.

Medical waste can be a bit more complex compared to some other waste because of different hazard risks as well as the necessary cleanliness of the health industry. Single-use plastics are very common in medical waste because everything must be sterile and only used once. As expected, this produces a huge excess of waste that contributes greatly to the general waste stream.

However, it is estimated that only about 15% of medical waste is hazardous, while the remaining 85% is non hazardous, which generally consists of a lot of plastic packaging that is used in the medical industry. This is an important thing to consider; while it is generally thought that there will always be a lot of medical waste for the safety of the industry, there is a lot of room for improvement in the sustainability of the healthcare field:

  • Reducing the amount of single-use plastic material for hospital food containers and reducing food waste in general
  • Improving the reusability of certain PPE 
  • Creating more environmentally conscious guidelines for which medical waste needs to go to landfill (considering what medical waste is truly hazardous and needs to be sterilized)
  • Forming stricter regulations for disposing of medical waste across countries

Even though the vast amount of medical waste seems inevitable, there can always be ways to create more sustainable industries.


Written by Carmen Marshall ’25

Photo by Marcelo Leal on Unpslash