Pharmaceutical and Medical


Because pharmaceutical and medical waste includes unused medications and supplies such as test strips, contaminated clothing, and, occasionally body parts, handling it requires not only a high order of technical skill but visible ethics.

Some drugs include metals, endocrine disruptors, and various compounds that are dangerous for humans, animals, and the environment. There is also a risk that inadequately managed pharmaceutical waste could end up in the hands of people who misuse the chemicals.

In addition, pharmaceutical waste is not a single waste stream, but many distinctive ones that can affect the integrity and uniformity of the chemicals from which pharmaceutical are made and negatively impact the environment. These waste streams are generated through a wide range of activities, some pro-active, such as IV preparation and general compoundings, and some accidental, such as breakages. And then there is waste that arises from partially used ampoules, used needles, fallow unit doses, and outdated pharmaceuticals.

The major waste streams include:

  • Biomedical waste – any solid or liquid waste that is created through the diagnosis or treatment of humans or animals in research facilities or in the production or testing of biological substances. It includes cultures, tissues, dressings, swabs, and waste holding pathogens from isolation wards.
In this context, according to the World Health Organisation, 85% of biomedical waste is non-toxic, 5% infectious, and 5% that is non-infections but contains hazardous chemicals such as methyl chloride and formaldehyde. Here, the main concern is transmission of infectious diseases and syringes and needles constitute the highest risk.
  • Mutual waste – also known as universal health care wastes, this is generally solid waste such as cardboard boxes, newspaper, foodstuff, plastic, and glass bottles that are not directly harmful to living beings.
  • Anatomical waste – detectable body parts.
  • Medical waste – outdated or no longer needed medicnes
  • Genotoxic waste – genotoxic drugs and chemicals used, for instance, in cancer therapy.
  • Chemical waste – laboratory reagents, solvents, expired or no longer desirable disinfectants, and organic chemical wastes such as phenol-containing washing solutions. The hazards they constitute include ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, and toxicity,
  • Heavy metal waste – batteries, pressure gauges, pressurised bottles, aerosol cans, and cylinders containing anaesthesia gases.
  • Radioactive waste – unused liquids from radiotherapy and materials from patients treated or tested with unsealed radionuclides.
  • Water waste – derived either from cleaning processes or laboratory activities.



Safely holding and disposing of such waste calls for specialist understanding of the specific hazards involved and the disposal techniques best able to control them.

There also needs to be a careful choice made among the various management options, ranging from minimisation and re-use to energy recovery and disposal. Disposal may call for solidifying of the waste and sending it to landfill or incinerating in specially designed equipment. And, of course, there needs to be strict compliance with legislation enforceable by ministries as diverse as transportation, health, and the environment.

Ideally, a multidisciplinary team would take care of the various waste management streams in ways that would ensure optimal and integrated use of resources, both human and mechanical. The objective, always, is to minimise the cost and effort of waste management while ensuring that it creates some benefit for the company, in financial, productivity, or reputational and integrity terms.

For instance, pharmacies can institute reverse distribution whereby unused but potentially usable pharmaceuticals are returned to the manufacturer for credit. The burden of proper disposal thus shifts to the manufacturer, which has more resources available for waste management than an individual pharmacy. This saves the pharmacy money and enables the manufacturer to put to work economies of scale.


We’ve been helping pharmaceutical and medical organisations manage their waste for over thirty eight years. We’ve seen best practice evolve and also, with new technologies and ongoing research in the pharmaceutical and medical sectors, we’ve seen the waste streams evolve.

In spite of all the change, we know from experience that certain basics remain the foundation of good waste management: identification, recording, segregation, containment, and labeling. If you can do those properly, then storage, transport, and disposal of waste becomes easier. Even so, each of these activities is complex and needs trained and dedicated attention.

In such complex situations, it’s always useful to talk to objective experts who know the latest trends and can apply them on your behalf to make waste management a contributor to the success of your operations.

Whether you want a complete outsource solution, an on-premise turnkey solution, or would like to cherry pick from our extensive services and products, please contact our Customer Care Line on 0800 192 783 for South African enquiries or click here for the contact details for enquiries across Sub-Saharan Africa​.