How to Dispose of Sharps

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Sharps are objects that can break or puncture the skin, like needles and syringes. Knowing how to dispose of them safely minimizes the risk of harm to people who help with the disposal process.

What Are Sharps?

Sharps are anything that can cut or puncture the skin, like needles, syringes, lancets, and other devices used for medical purposes. Infectious agents called pathogens can survive on sharps, meaning if someone accidentally comes into contact with them, an infection can be transmitted. The most common infections you could be exposed to from inadvertent sticks are hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). To avoid accidental sticks and infection, we have protocols in place for the proper disposal of sharps.

Using Sharps Containers

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the use and design of sharps containers. An approved sharps container is made of puncture-resistant plastic and has a tight-fitting lid that is also resistant to punctures. The sides and bottom are leak-resistant to prevent spills, and the container is clearly labeled as a sharps disposal container.

Approved sharps containers minimize the risk of accidental sticks to other people.
Sharps container

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends sharps containers should be appropriately sized and constructed, accessible and located in a safe place, clearly visible, and should be operational with one hand (meaning a person should be able to safely dispose of a sharp into the container using only one hand). They should be kept out of reach of children and pets. Approved containers are available in most places that sell medical supplies.

A sharp should be placed into a sharps container immediately after use. Containers are considered full once they are at 3/4 capacity, and you should never try to force a sharp in or compact what's already inside. Never empty a container; once it's full, it should be disposed of properly and a new container should be used.

If a person isn't near a sharps container, there are FDA-approved travel-size containers available. Sharps should never be placed in household garbage, plastic bags, or flushed down the toilet. Ultimately, these practices just put other people at risk of being stuck.

Disposal of Sharps Containers

Once a sharps container is full, it needs to be properly disposed of. This disposal is regulated through local trash or health departments. If you are unsure how to dispose of a sharps container, you can search your location on Local medical personnel like pharmacists may also provide guidance. There are usually a few different disposal options available, including:

  • Centralized drop-off sites at medical places like a doctor's office or pharmacy.
  • Local household hazardous waste collection sites: these are the same types of places that collect other hazardous materials like paint, cleaners, and used oil.
  • Mail-back programs: these have specific requirements and often include a fee.
  • Residential special waste pick-up programs: some locations have trained workers who will come pick up filled sharps containers from individual homes.

How to Treat a Stick

If you accidentally get stuck by a sharp, you likely won't know if it's contaminated and hazardous or not. The best immediate course of action is to wash the area with soap and water or treat it with antiseptic as soon as possible. Then immediately seek medical attention from a doctor or hospital for follow-up treatment and testing.

Proper disposal of sharps can prevent accidental sticks by other patients or health care workers, so these disposal protocols are critical for public health and safety.

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