Pharmaceutical Returns or Waste Disposal Management

As the leader is healthcare waste management, Stericycle can help you with your pharmaceutical waste disposal and returns management by providing compliant returns and drug waste services. Learn more about our different business-to-business programs for:

Pharmaceutical Waste Disposal Management

Pharmaceutical Return Service

Our Expertise Helps You Be Compliant With Regulations

The disposal of pharmaceuticals and their components are regulated by federal and local regulations or laws. Understanding which regulations apply to you may depend on your type of business, your volume of waste, and the specific type of wastes. Stericycle’s programs are designed to meet the regulatory requirements that apply to you and the pharmaceutical waste you generate. We have developed simple pharmaceutical programs that help you identify your controlled substance wastes, hazardous wastes, and other drug wastes to make sure that each is disposed of properly.

Concern Over Proper Disposal of Pharmaceuticals

Based on our internal expert research, hundreds of clinical, peer-reviewed articles have documented the presence of pharmaceuticals or their constituents in drinking water and/or groundwater in the United States and other developed nations. Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) mandates proper disposal of any drug that meets the criteria for being a hazardous waste.

Other pharmaceuticals that are not currently regulated under RCRA are often called non-RCRA hazardous pharmaceuticals. Best management practices encourage the disposal of pharmaceuticals that are non-RCRA hazardous waste by incineration at a facility permitted to accept non-RCRA hazardous pharmaceuticals.

These pharmaceuticals should not be placed into red bags or sharps containers as these may be treated by methods other than incineration. Segregation (separation) of these items into a dedicated non-RCRA pharmaceutical container, marked for incineration, helps to ensure proper disposal.

Additionally, California Department of Public Health requires the segregation and incineration of affected waste pharmaceuticals that are not federally regulated under Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). These must be incinerated at a medical waste treatment facility.

Pharmaceutical Waste Disposal FAQs

  • What are hazardous pharmaceutical wastes or RCRA drugs?
  • What are controlled or scheduled substances?
  • What is source segregation?
  • What is trace chemotherapy?
  • What can I do with unused pharmaceuticals in the home setting?

What are hazardous pharmaceutical wastes or RCRA drugs?

Many drugs can be hazardous to people or animals, if not taken as prescribed. However, the term “hazardous,” in the context of drug wastes, specifically refers to pharmaceuticals that are identified by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) as environmental hazards for people, animals, and the environment.

RCRA (pronounced WRECK-rah or RICK-rah), outlined by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), gives guidance regarding medications that are known environmental hazards. These are called hazardous pharmaceutical wastes or RCRA drug wastes. By law, RCRA drug wastes must be disposed of by a company, such as Stericycle, that specializes in hazardous waste management.

Many factors are considered when deciding if pharmaceutical waste is hazardous or non-RCRA hazardous. These include your state and local requirements, drug formulation distinctions, differences in manufacturers, and alternate delivery modes.

Among others, RCRA identifies the following as hazardous wastes:

  • P-listed drugs including nicotine and warfarin
  • U-listed drugs including cyclophosphamide, lindane, melphalan, and mitomycin C
  • Pharmaceuticals containing heavy metals and mercury, such as some vaccines, eye and ear drops containing thimerosal, and barium sulfate preparations, among others.

Pharmaceutical may also be classified as “characteristic wastes” or wastes that have certain traits which pose threats for transportation and destruction. The four characteristics include:

  • Ignitability
  • Corrosivity
  • Reactivity
  • Toxicity

Pharmaceuticals with these characteristics may need to be segregated into separate hazardous waste containers and not commingled (mixed) with other wastes.

What are controlled or scheduled substances?

Controlled substances are those that are defined by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Among others, they include depressants, hallucinogens, narcotics, and stimulants. Controlled substances are sometimes called scheduled substances, because of the DEA’s schedule, or classification (CI-CV). This schedule is based on each controlled substance’s theoretical potential for addiction and its medicinal purpose. The destruction of any of these scheduled substances must be witnessed as required by DEA.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), an agency of the US Department of Justice, requires that controlled substances be destroyed as directed by the Agency. This type of disposal is called “witnessed destruction.”

Stericycle can arrange the logistics associated with witnessed destruction.

What is source segregation?

When referring to pharmaceutical waste disposal, the word “segregation” simply means separating the different types of wastes by method of ultimate disposal.

“Source segregating” refers to disposing pills, powders, or liquids in a safe way at the time and place that they are expired, off-specification, or cannot be used (eg, medication change, patient goes home).

Source segregation is an important step in ensuring that your pharmaceutical waste disposal program is compliant with all federal and state laws.

At Stericycle, our team members can help you identify which type of pharmaceuticals can go into one single, non-RCRA hazardous waste container and which need to be segregated by law. We can also help you with the logistics of disposing pharmaceuticals at their source.

What is trace chemotherapy?

Trace chemotherapy is separated from other wastes and labeled for incineration. Some types of chemotherapy — even in small amounts — may not be disposed of as trace chemotherapy but are considered RCRA hazardous waste. Also, all full bags or bottles of chemotherapy (those containing more than 3% of the original contents by weight) are considered RCRA hazardous waste and must be disposed as such.

Trace chemotherapy is defined as vials or other containers that have less than 3% of the original contents by weight, after removing as much of the chemotherapy feasible. It also includes the chemotherapy remaining in all needles, bags, tubing, containers, gloves, and gowns used during chemotherapy infusions. When less than 3% of the original content remains in total, the items may be considered RCRA empty.

Trace chemotherapy is segregated and incinerated as a regulatory requirement in some states but as a best management practice in others. P-listed chemo wastes, however, are not eligible to be handled as trace chemo in any quantity and are required to be handled as hazardous waste.

Although there is no legal name for chemotherapy amounts that exceed 3% by volume, they are commonly referred to as “bulk” chemotherapy. Bulk chemotherapy, which falls under RCRA hazardous waste regulations, such as full bags or bottles, and P-listed chemo drugs must be disposed of as hazardous waste. However, the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that all types of chemotherapy, antiviral medications, hormones, and immunosuppressant drugs be treated as hazardous waste. As a best practice, Stericycle also recommends that bulk chemotherapy be treated as hazardous waste.

What can I do with unused pharmaceuticals in the home setting?

If you are an individual with unused pharmaceuticals needing proper destruction, contact your city or county government agency that manages household waste and recycling to inquire about pharmaceutical take-back programs. If programs are not available, please follow recommendations from the local authority having jurisdiction or the US Food and Drug Administration for disposal of unused medicines.

Request a Free Pharmaceutical Services Consult or Call 1.866.783.7422

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