October 06, 2021

Pharmaceutical Waste & Medication Disposal Explained

Pharmaceuticals are an essential element in healthcare delivery, helping patients effectively recover from illness and better manage chronic conditions. A key component in safe pharmaceutical handling is proper waste management. This critical, yet complex activity is governed by strict and sometimes confusing requirements.

The following sections address some commonly asked questions about pharmaceutical waste management and offer suggestions on how to ensure a complete and compliant effort that preserves staff, patient, and environmental safety.

What Is Pharmaceutical Waste?

Pharmaceutical waste is any leftover, unused, or expired medication that is no longer needed or can no longer be used. It can be classified as either hazardous or non-hazardous depending on its chemical properties and its risk to humans and the environment. There are different requirements for disposing of hazardous versus non-hazardous pharmaceuticals.

What Are the Risks of Improper Pharmaceutical Waste Disposal?

If an organization disposes of unused or expired medications incorrectly, dangerous chemicals can leach into the surrounding environment and contaminate groundwater, drinking water, plant life, and so on. Eventually, this may cause health problems in the community. Improper disposal methods may include washing drugs down sinks, flushing them down toilets, throwing them away in the regular trash, or comingling hazardous drug waste with non-hazardous drug waste.

Which Agencies Regulate Pharmaceutical Waste Disposal? 

Health Canada through the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) regulates controlled drugs and opioids while the Provincial Ministries of the Environment all have regulations on pharmaceutical waste disposal. These regulations specify how pharmaceutical waste must be classified and disposed of based on prescribed criteria and procedures.

Other agencies that regulate pharmaceutical waste disposal include Transport Canada, which covers how drug waste should be transported to waste management facilities, and Environment Canada.

What Are the Different Hazardous Waste Generator Types?

Ministries of the Environment also have specific programs and regulations regarding post-consumer pharmaceutical waste. These programs are designed to promote the safe and efficient collection and disposal of unused medicines and drugs from the consumer’s homes. They include specific regulatory requirements that apply only to this type of waste or generators.

What Are the Different Hazardous Waste Pharmaceutical Categories?

All pharmaceutical waste requires safe and secure disposal. However, some pharmaceutical wastes, based on its chemical properties, have specific disposal requirements. These properties include such criteria as toxicity, flammability/ignitability, or corrosivity. For example, chemotherapy drugs have high toxicity which require them to receive specific treatment. Drugs that are under pressure (i.e. aerosol cans), that are flammable (like certain cough syrups) also have specific requirements. Generators must ensure that they properly segregate and classify their waste streams to ensure proper disposal.

 What Is a Hazardous Waste Manifest?

The hazardous waste manifest is a document that accompanies waste from a healthcare facility to a designated hazardous waste treatment, storage, or disposal facility. The manifest identifies the waste-generating healthcare site, the transporter that carries the waste off-site, and the destination for the hazardous waste treatment, storage, disposal, or recycling.

Most provinces require the use of a manifest document for each step of the waste management process. The generator (the healthcare organization) is responsible for the accuracy and completeness of the information entered on the manifest.

What Are the Training Requirements for Pharmaceutical Waste Disposal?

All staff should be trained on the importance of proper pharmaceutical waste segregation, handling, and disposal. In addition, personnel who prepare materials for transport must complete the Transport of Dangerous Goods and Environmental Regulations training and be re-trained at least every three years, so they know how to:

  • Safely prepare hazardous waste for shipment
  • Select containers
  • Place hazardous materials into containers
  • Mark or label containers
  • Fill out or sign hazardous waste manifests
  • Load hazardous waste onto vehicles
  • Specify the placard required on the transport vehicle

Training should be easy to complete and accessible in a variety of forms, including web-based options as well as on-site programs that share real-world examples.

How Do You Dispose of Old and Unused Medications?

How you dispose of leftover medications depends on what type of generator you are. Hazardous waste pharmaceuticals generated from healthcare organizations, such as hospitals, doctor’s offices or pharmacies are regulated. Some medication can be categorized as regulated medical waste and others as non-hazardous.

Looking for a Pharmaceutical Waste Management Program?

Stericycle can help improve the safety and reliability of your pharmaceutical waste management program. From compliance training to medication disposal, learn how Stericycle can help you find a service to fit your unique needs.