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  • Writer's pictureSam Spaccamonti

What Are Sharps and What Goes in the Sharps Container

Have you ever used a needle for medication and wondered what to do with it afterward?  Tossing it in the trash can be risky, posing a threat to sanitation workers, curious pets, or even someone rummaging through discarded waste. Here's where sharps containers come in – but what exactly are "sharps," and what belongs in these special boxes?  

This in-depth guide will equip you with the knowledge to navigate sharps disposal confidently and safely.

What is Sharps?

What is Sharps

Within the healthcare realm, a specific category of medical equipment exists, distinguished by their pointed or edged design – these are sharps.  Their very form presents a potential hazard, as they can easily puncture the skin if not handled with appropriate caution.  The concern extends beyond accidental injury; sharps that have been used often come into contact with blood or other bodily fluids, introducing the risk of infection for anyone who comes into inadvertent contact with them.

Here's a closer look at some common examples of sharps encountered in healthcare settings:

  • Hypodermic Needles and Syringes

  • Scalpels

  • Lancets

  • Intravenous (IV) Catheters

  • Auto-Injector Pens

  • Blood Collection Tubes

The Sharps Container

Sharps Container

A sharps container is a specifically designed, puncture-resistant receptacle intended for the safe disposal of used sharps. These containers are typically constructed from robust plastic to prevent accidental injuries caused by penetration from the sharps contained in them. They come in various sizes to suit different disposal needs and feature a small opening that facilitates the depositing of sharps while securely containing them after disposal.

Navigating Sharps Disposal in Medical Facilities: A Comprehensive Guide

The proper handling and disposal of sharps – medical instruments with pointed or edged designs – is crucial to maintaining a safe and healthy environment within healthcare facilities.  

Step 1: Placement & Labeling

Prior to use, each sharps container within your facility must be clearly labeled with the following information:

  • Facility Name: This ensures the sharps can be readily identified and traced back to your specific location.

  • Facility Address: Providing the address allows for efficient communication and coordination in case of any issues related to the sharps container.

  • Facility Phone Number: A readily available contact number facilitates communication with your facility if necessary.

California Law mandates this labeling requirement, ensuring clear identification and proper tracking of sharps containers throughout your facility.

Placement Considerations:

Sharps containers are classified as "point of use disposal" items.  This signifies their placement within the immediate vicinity of where sharps are utilized.  Here are two acceptable placement options:

  • Wall Mounts: Securely mounting sharps containers on walls within designated areas offers a convenient and readily accessible disposal solution for staff.

  • Countertops: Strategically placing sharps containers on countertops in areas where sharps are used provides another accessible disposal option.

Step 2: Primary Sharps Waste Container

Once a sharp instrument has been used, it must be immediately placed into the designated sharps container.  California Health And Safety Code Section 117750 emphasizes the importance of immediate disposal to minimize the risk of accidental punctures or exposure.  Here are some additional points to remember:

Filling the Container: Continue adding used sharps to the container until it reaches the designated "FULL" line. This line serves as a critical indicator, signifying the container's maximum capacity for safe storage. Exceeding this limit can compromise the container's integrity and increase the risk of accidental injury during handling.

Secure Closure: Ensure the lid is tightly closed once the container is full or ready for disposal. Utilize any available locking tabs and tape to secure the closure further. This additional step minimizes the risk of sharps accidentally spilling out during transportation or handling.

Step 3: Designated Accumulation Area

Sharps containers are typically considered part of a larger medical waste management system. California Health And Safety Code Section 118310 outlines the proper handling of sharps containers within this system.

On or before your scheduled medical waste service date:

  • Carefully remove the full sharps containers from patient rooms, ensuring no needles or sharps spill out during transport.

  • Locate the designated Regulated Medical Waste (RMW) container within your facility. This container, which includes sharps containers, is specifically designed to safely store and dispose of medical waste. Place the entire sharps container upright and securely within the RMW container.

  • With the full sharps container now placed in the RMW container, replace it with a new, labeled sharps container in the patient room. This ensures continued accessibility and proper disposal of sharps for future use. 

PRO TIP: Both sharps containers and biohazard bags can be commingled within the RMW container for disposal.

Step 4: Scheduled Medical Waste Service

Medical waste disposal services typically operate on a scheduled basis.  Here's what to expect on your scheduled service day:

One-for-One Exchange: The medical waste service provider will perform a one-for-one exchange of your onsite RMW container. The full container containing the used sharps containers and other medical waste will be removed, and a new, empty RMW container will be delivered for continued use.

Pre-Ordered Products: If you have pre-ordered additional supplies, such as sharps containers or biohazard bags, they will be delivered on your scheduled service day alongside the new RMW container.

Missed Waste: Any medical waste that wasn't placed in the RMW container before the service provider's arrival can be deposited into the new container for pickup on your next scheduled service date.


By adhering to these guidelines and relevant regulations, medical facilities can ensure the safe and responsible disposal of sharps, protecting patients, staff, and the environment. Proper sharps disposal is not only a regulatory requirement but a critical practice that minimizes the risk of injury and infection, fostering a secure and healthy atmosphere in healthcare settings.

Remember, proper sharps disposal is a shared responsibility. Healthcare providers, facility staff, patients, and even community members play vital roles in maintaining a safe environment. By working together and following these established procedures, we can create a safer and healthier healthcare environment for all.

To learn more about how SDmedwaste can enhance and support your sharps management and waste program, visit our sharps management service page.

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