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Column: How to dispose of household medical waste

Jan 01, 2024Jan 01, 2024

By Amanda Haffele

The 1988 Medical Waste Tracking Act is a United States federal law, enacted in response to a series of events beginning in 1987 involving a large amount of medical waste that washed up on the shores of the East Coast.

The Environmental Protection Agency had congressional authority to regulate medical waste on behalf of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico — until the act expired in 1991. Today, medical waste is regulated by individual states who modeled their regulations after the 1988 Medical Waste Tracking Act.

Medical waste, defined by the EPA, is “healthcare waste that may be contaminated by blood, body fluids or other potentially infectious materials and is often referred to as regulated medical waste.” The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources regulates household and healthcare medical wastes separately. Healthcare waste includes infectious wastes from healthcare facilities such as hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes, as well as medical research facilities, laboratories, veterinary practices, first aid stations, and schools.

Household medical wastes such as used bandages and bloody clothing, bed linens, furniture, and carpet can be tossed in the trash as is. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources does recommend bagging blood-soaked items before depositing them in the general trash.

Medical wastes such as mercury thermometers, medication, and sharps such as needles or lancets, cannot be disposed of in the trash or flushed down the drain per Wisconsin Law.

Mercury thermometers should be brought to a Hazardous Waste Collection Event or handed directly to a Portage County Solid Waste employee for proper disposal. There is a $3 charge to help offset the cost of disposal.

Residents in Portage County can easily and responsibly dispose of sharps, needles, and lancets with our free sharps disposal program. Sharps containers can be properly disposed of at the Portage County MRF in Plover, Hometown Pharmacies in Plover and Stevens Point, and Metro Market Pharmacies in Plover and Stevens Point.

Funding for this program is not intended to subsidize sharps containers or disposal for businesses such as nursing homes, clinics, hospitals, assisted living homes, treatment centers, or spas. For large facilities or multiple generators of sharps, please contact Stericycle at (715) 835-6250.

It is imperative to use correct containers when disposing of sharps. An unintentional needle prick leads to expensive testing and potential exposure to diseases such as Hepatitis or HIV and can create tremendous emotional stress in whomever it happens to. Sites will not accept sharps in coffee canisters, water bottles, plastic bags, or any other substitute for a proper sharps container.

Medications should never be flushed down a drain. Municipal sewage treatment systems are not effective in removing these chemicals during the sewage treatment process, and as a result, research has shown elevated levels of hormones, antidepressants, antibiotics, and other detrimental chemicals in aquatic life from our rivers and lakes.

Medications must be brought to the Portage County Sheriff’s Office, or police stations in Stevens Point or Plover. Residents can turn over medications anonymously, Monday through Friday during normal business hours. Twice a year the United States Department of Justice organizes, collects, transports, and observes household pharmaceuticals as they are safely destroyed through incineration.

Since the inception of the DOJ’s Drug Take Back program in 2010, Wisconsin residents have properly disposed of 1,093,445 lbs. of unwanted medications. Wisconsin ranks third in the nation, falling behind California and Texas for proper disposal. I like to think this is partially due to the amazing network of permanent drop-off locations throughout the state.

As always, if you have any questions give us a call at (715) 343-6297, or visit us online at

Amanda Haffele is the solid waste director for Portage County.