How to Trash Your Sharps
Affordable ways to safely dispose of syringes and other sharps
Every year, 7 billion sharps get thrown away in the United States. Some of that trash has been used to help keep people with diabetes healthy. The lancets and glucose sensor introducer needles that are part of blood glucose monitoring are sharps, as are the syringe, pen, and infusion set introducer needles that deliver life-sustaining insulin. But what’s good for people with diabetes may be bad for sanitation workers and other unsuspecting people who handle garbage.
Up to 850,000 people are injured every year by sharps, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That number includes only injuries related to home waste, not incidents at health care facilities, says Victoria Wagman, senior science health advisor in the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “There are injuries in terms of garbage disposal, cleaning people who pick up trash, people involved in home care, and kids, who sometimes reach into the trash,” she adds.
Sharps in home waste can carry communicable diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. To protect people from these deadly diseases, sharps need to be safely sequestered. Figuring out what to do with sharps takes some effort, but the payoff in public health is worth it.
Location, Location, Location
No national regulations tell people how and where to get rid of sharps. “The key is that a lot of this is regulated at the county and local levels. Usually, that is where you will get your information,” says Wagman. “It does make it hard.” One good place to start is the state-by-state guide to needle disposal assembled by device maker BD (www.bd.com/us/sharpsdisposalguidelines). For more information about sharps disposal, contact your local government’s sanitation or health department. Depending on your locality’s rules, you may have options about safe sharps disposal.
Choosing a Container
The first choice you have to make regarding sharps is what to use as the disposal container. “Loose sharps are the worst thing,” says Wagman. “The best thing is to put [sharps] in an FDA-approved container.” There are purpose-made containers, but you can make your own version. The approved boxes are made of thick plastic and specially designed to safely store sharps, as long as they’re used properly. First, of course, you have to get your hands on one.
Such sharps containers typically aren’t free, though the FDA says that some doctors, pharmacists, medication suppliers, and hospitals hand them out. Check with your pharmacist about free sources. Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the California Product Stewardship Council, a group that is working on sharps legislation, isn’t aware of any free sharps containers available to everyone. The question of who should pay for sharps containers is a hot issue. In California, advocacy groups are pushing legislation that would make needle and insulin manufacturers foot the bill. “We believe that the producers should and are in the best position to design a cost-effective system [for sharps disposal],” says Sanborn.
For now, check with your insurance company to see if it covers some or all of the cost of sharps containers. Sanborn says a state-based health insurance program for low-income people in California supplies containers, but that’s the only one she knows of. “Most people have to buy them separately, which is why they don’t buy them,” she says.
If you can’t find a free container and your insurance won’t pay for one, there may be another option. “We suggest a laundry detergent container,” says Wagman. “It’s very thick plastic.” The jug must be clearly labeled (see “Make Your Own Sharps Container”) and sealed with heavy tape so that anyone handling the container knows it contains sharps and should not be recycled.
Putting sharps containers in the trash is legal in some areas. To avoid putting sanitation workers and others at risk, if you take this route, be sure to place the container in the center of the bag, surrounded by other trash. That isn’t an option in other places. “They’ve been totally banned from the trash since 2008 in California,” says Sanborn.
If the trash isn’t an option, consider a mail-back program. Special sharps containers can be sent through the mail for disposal; the shipping cost is included in their price. A quart-sized mail-back container may cost $35, though buying in bulk gets you a steep discount. Directions for returning the sharps-filled container are included. For additional disposal methods, check with your local government, pharmacist, or doctor about drop-off locations. “Just having that conversation and building awareness is so important,” says Wagman. While you’re on the phone, ask about whether pickup services for home medical waste disposal are available in your area.
If everyone with diabetes followed safe practices for sharps disposal, fewer people would get hurt. Proper sharps disposal will only become more important as the number of people using injected medications increases. “There are more sharps being used than ever before,” says Wagman. “We want to make sure people understand it’s a big issue.”
Following these nine rules will help keep sanitation workers, children, yourself, and others safe from needle sticks.
- Don’t throw loose sharps in the trash.
- Don’t put sharps in recycling bins.
- Don’t keep sharps containers where children can reach them.
- Don’t flush sharps down the toilet.
- Don’t use glass bottles, plastic water bottles, milk jugs or cartons, or soda cans as do-it-yourself sharps containers.
- Don’t fill sharps containers past the fill line or two-thirds full, and don’t force needles inside.
- Don’t wait. Put your sharps into the container immediately after use.
- Don’t bend or break needles.
- Don’t recap others’ needles; if you don’t have a sharps container, you may want to carefully recap your own needles.