Written by Josh Glover
10 Aug 2023

A Guide to Understanding Healthcare Waste

Healthcare waste and clinical waste are the same thing, right? Anyway, isn’t all hospital waste just called medical waste? There’s a lot of confusion around terminology within the industry, and in the age of compliance, this won’t wash… Let’s clear things up with a guide to understanding healthcare waste – for a safer and more sustainable environment in compliance with regulations and legislation. We’ll also link out to more in-depth definitions and explanations of each waste stream we cover – feel free to bookmark this guide so you’re able to easily return if you end up down a waste-filled rabbit hole.


1 / What is healthcare waste?

2 / Common healthcare waste streams.

3 / How to classify your healthcare waste.

4 / Best practices for managing your healthcare waste.

5 / Healthcare waste regulations and legislation.

6 / Do you need help with your healthcare waste? 

What Is Healthcare Waste?

Healthcare waste refers to any waste material generated within healthcare facilities such as hospitals, clinics, vets, and medical labs during human or animal healthcare, or related research activities. Healthcare waste is a broad term that covers all waste generated within the healthcare environment, it includes clinical waste, but also includes non-clinical wastes such as offensive waste, general waste, recyclable waste, food waste, etc.


What’s the Difference Between Healthcare Waste and Clinical Waste?

Clinical waste is a specific category within healthcare waste that encompasses any type of waste generated in a medical, veterinary, treatment, research, or other practice where the waste poses a risk of infection or hazard, or can otherwise cause harm or illness to a person coming into contact with it. So to summarise, not all waste generated within the healthcare environment is clinical waste, but it is all healthcare waste. 

Common Healthcare Waste Streams


We won’t define every single healthcare waste stream, you can always refer to the Health Technical Memorandum (HTM) 07-01 for that, but the most common healthcare waste streams are:

Offensive waste – recognisable, non-hazardous, non-infectious waste that may contain body fluids (secretions or excretions) and may have an unpleasant odour and appearance. Offensive waste includes items such as PPE, nappies, and incontinence pads.

Pharmaceutical waste – Any non-hazardous medicines such as tablets, capsules, liquid suspensions, and powders.

Sharps waste – any sharp item that could potentially cut or puncture skin including syringes, single-use metal items, and end-of-life surgical instruments. The presence of infectious organisms, chemical contamination, or a cytotoxic or cytostatic drug determines whether a sharp is hazardous. Sharps may also contain pharmaceutical residues.

Anatomical waste – any identifiable human parts including limbs, organs, and placentas as well as full or partially used blood bags. Also includes pathological and biopsy specimens. Anatomical waste isn’t necessarily hazardous unless it’s infectious or chemically contaminated.

Infectious waste for alternative treatment – waste such as PPE, dressings, and IV tubings that have come into contact with infectious bodily fluids and isn’t medicinally or chemically contaminated. This also includes waste generated from a patient diagnosed with any type of communicable disease.

Infectious waste for incineration – waste classified as being highly infectious due to a secondary contamination such as medicinal or chemical.

Cytotoxic or Cytostatic waste – the most dangerous drugs used in healthcare and includes cytotoxic or cytostatic drugs and any materials contaminated with them. These drugs contain one or more hazardous properties including acute toxicity, carcinogenic, toxic for reproduction, or mutagenic.


Radioactive waste – is waste contaminated with low-level radioisotopes and is typically only occurring in specific areas within a healthcare facility such as nuclear medicine departments, labs, operating theatres, and areas using X-ray equipment. Common radioactive healthcare wastes include syringes and needles, PPE, and other disposable equipment used in nuclear medicine procedures.

Other common healthcare waste streams include domestic/general, recyclable, and confidential. If you’d like a deeper dive into some of these waste streams plus a more in-depth definition of clinical waste, see our blog: What Is Clinical Waste? 

How to Classify Your Healthcare Waste

To correctly classify your waste, you’ll need to be able to assess the properties of the waste for infectious properties, medicines, chemicals, or other hazardous properties and the best time to do so is at the point of generation. Some questions you can ask when attempting to classify your waste are:

  • Is it clinical waste?
  • Is it hazardous?
  • Is it a medicine, or does it contain a pharmaceutically active medicine?
  • Does the waste contain cytotoxic or cytostatic medicinal waste?
  • Does it contain any other chemicals?
  • Is it infectious?
  • Does it contain recognisable human tissue?
  • Is it radioactive?

Wow, what a list! But what if the answer was a resounding no to all of those? If that’s the case and your waste is non-hazardous, all you need to do is assess whether it’s offensive, domestic/general, recyclable, or confidential waste. Understanding the EWC Codes for healthcare waste can also help you to identify and classify the different waste types and follow best practices.

Do you need help with waste classification? 

Best Practices for Managing Your Healthcare Waste

Best practices for healthcare waste management include:

  • Waste optimisation – having the right containers in the right places for the volumes of waste you’re generating.
  • Waste segregation – putting the right waste into the right bin to ensure compliance and that it’s sent to the most sustainable outlet.
  • Correct labelling – each waste bag/container must be traceable back to its producer, this usually involves the use of pre-numbered tags or pre-printed stickers.
  • Appropriate storage – again, putting the right waste into the right bin in the waste hold.
  • Reputable partnerships – working with certified and credible waste disposal service providers and facilities.
  • Waste reduction – implementing strategies to move your waste up the waste hierarchy with the most favourable step being reduction.
  • Clear signage – easy to see and understand and without the need to spend your lunch break reading it is a huge aid for ensuring the correct waste goes into the correct container.

Healthcare Waste Regulations and Legislation

When it comes to healthcare waste regulations and understanding the requirements of compliance, the Health Technical Memorandum (HTM) 07-01: The Safe and Sustainable Management of Healthcare Waste is your most valuable resource. This document provides an understanding of best practices, detailed technical guidance, information on classifying and handling different healthcare waste streams, and more. By understanding and following the guidance offered by the HTM 07-01, you’ll be meeting legislative requirements, encouraging safer working practices, and significantly reducing your environmental impact – also resulting in cost savings. The guidance recently had its first major update in 10 years, we’ve summarised the key changes of the HTM 07-01 in a recent blog to make it scannable and easily digestible. The regulations and legislation aren’t in place to act as a barrier to healthcare, they’re there to ensure a safer workplace and protect public health, the environment, and avoid legal consequences. 

Do You Need Help With Your Healthcare Waste?

Understanding healthcare waste is essential for improving best practices and management techniques and from that understanding you’ll be able to improve waste segregation and maintain compliance with regulations. At Sharpsmart, we’re experienced at working within the four walls of healthcare organisations, reducing costs and carbon emissions with tailored solutions based on knowledge gained from audits. We help to upskill healthcare workers with education and training that makes waste management best practices second nature. If you’d like help with your healthcare waste, or would like more information on the subject and best practices, please get in touch.


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Josh Glover

Josh Glover

Content Specialist

As a natural storyteller driven by curiosity, Josh aims to educate and engage through informative and thought-provoking content; working towards a safer and more sustainable healthcare system.