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Managing household medical sharps

It is illegal to put needles and other sharp medical items in the trash, recycling or medication collection drop boxes.

Medical sharps, such as needles, syringes and lancets, pose an injury risk for anyone who comes in contact with these items. Large numbers of sharps are used at home, work and on the road. If sharps are put in the trash or recycling or flushed down the toilet, they can injure sanitation workers or cause equipment problems. Therefore, it is important to properly package and dispose of all sharps. Learn how to properly dispose of used medical sharps below.

List of sharps collection stations in Wisconsin

The DNR maintains a list of registered sharps collection stations. In addition, many healthcare providers accept sharps but are not required to register with the DNR.

Correct packaging of used medical sharps

To reduce the risk of injury, follow these four steps to get medical sharps ready for safe disposal.

  1. Clip the needle points with needle clippers, or recap or re-sheathe discarded sharps to help prevent needle sticks. Recapping needles is prohibited in healthcare facilities because medical workers might stick themselves with contaminated needles, but individuals who administer their own medications are not at risk from their own needles.
  2. Place the sharps in hard, puncture-resistant containers with secure lids or caps. Acceptable containers include commercially available sharps containers or thick-walled plastic detergent or bleach bottles with screw caps. Unacceptable containers include coffee cans (the lids are too easily punctured), plastic milk jugs, plastic bags, aluminum cans and soda bottles. NOTE: DO NOT add bleach to the container. Bleach may not completely disinfect needles, and it could spill and injure you or waste handlers.
  3. Visibly label the sharps container with the words "biohazard," "infectious waste" or "sharps," or with the bio-hazard emblem. If you have put sharps in a container that would otherwise be recyclable, label it "Do not recycle."
  4. When the container is full, sealed and labeled, store it out of reach of children and dispose of it properly at a sharps collection station or by using another method described below.

Correct disposal of medical sharps

The acceptable options for disposing of household sharps are:

  • Take your sharps to a registered sharps collection station.
  • Contact your doctor, clinic or local hospital. Many healthcare facilities accept sharps but are not required to register and therefore may not appear on the list of registered sharps collection stations.
  • Call a local pharmacy, hospital, diabetes educator, public health department, or solid waste or streets department about local options.
  • For small quantities (50 pounds and under), you may transport the sharps to an infectious waste treatment facility. If you do transport sharps, use a proper container and put the container in the trunk or another enclosed part of your vehicle.
  • Use a "mail-back" sharps program, which can be found by searching the internet. The company should provide containers and packaging which meet U.S. postal regulations.
  • Reduce the amount of sharps you have to dispose of by clipping the needles of the syringe. The needle-less syringe can go in the household trash.

Disposing of sharps generated away from home

If you need to use sharps when away from home, look for sharps boxes in public restrooms in airports, restaurants and highway rest areas. Hotels and motels may offer a small needle box for use in your room. You may also carry small sharps boxes to use when other options are not available.

Frequently asked questions about sharps collection stations

Who can use sharps collection stations?

Anyone, including businesses and institutions, who generates less than 50 pounds of sharps per month, including the weight of the container. However, some stations choose to accept sharps only from certain generators such as their patients, households or residents of a particular community. Call ahead to find out about any restrictions.

How much does it cost?

Many sharps collection stations accept sharps for free. Others may charge some or all users a small fee, which by law must be "not-for-profit" and "cost only." Some stations only accept containers previously bought at that station. Call ahead to be sure.

How can I learn more about a particular sharps collection station?

Each station's contact person is on the list and can answer questions about when a particular station is open, what it charges (if anything), who may use it, what kind of containers are accepted and whether replacement containers are provided or may be purchased.

What if a station on the list no longer exists?

If a registered station has moved or no longer collects sharps, ask the owner to notify the DNR of the changes. If the owner is unavailable, contact DNRMedicalWaste@wisconsin.gov.

How can I set up a sharps collection station?

Wisconsin medical sharps collection program explains how to set up a collection station and offers examples of collection programs operating in Wisconsin.

Public health risks from sharps

Medical sharps are often found in household garbage, recyclables or are flushed down the toilet. When these needles end up in the waste stream, they can injure waste haulers, landfill operators and recycling facility workers. When they are flushed down toilets, they may cause problems in plumbing and wastewater treatment plants or may end up on beaches, causing a potential health risk to humans and animals.

All needle stick injuries demand expensive testing, may cause long-term emotional stress and increase the risk of exposure to such infectious diseases as Hepatitis B and HIV from contaminated needles. Costs for a typical needle stick can run upwards of thousands of dollars.

To reduce public health risks, Wisconsin rules require all citizens to manage sharps safely. It is illegal to put sharps in the trash or with recyclables. Sharps must be packaged safely and treated either at a licensed medical waste incinerator or by methods that render the sharps non-infectious, broken and unable to be reused. It is not legal to merely solidify sharps.