The Real Deal on How to Handle Red Bag Waste in Your Laboratory

Arthur Trapotsis
Written by: Arthur Trapotsis

MS Biochemical Engineering, MBA, Consultant

Red bag waste is a necessary evil in today’s bio-medical field. Every day, hospitals and universities alike confront the continual burden of how to handle, sterilize and properly dispose of this bio-hazardous waste — especially within a laboratory setting. However, despite this widespread challenge, there remains no universal guideline on how laboratories should properly handle and sterilize this potentially harmful medical waste. The issue is incredibly multifaceted.

However before getting into the various elements and issues surrounding red bag waste, it’s important to properly define what it is in the first place.

What is Red Bag Waste?

Red bag waste is exactly what it sounds like — a red biohazard autoclave bag with biohazardous waste inside. This biohazardous waste could be anything from pipettes used in microbiology research experiments to instruments exposed to human waste from a hospital. Examples of items that go into a red bag include:

  • Plastic tubing, pipettes, and petri dishes used in experiments
  • Bandages, gauze, and needles exposed to infectious materials (e.g. blood, tissue, etc.)
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) used during procedures
  • Used surgical gloves

Red Bag Waste Requirements Vary

Every state offers its own unique set of guidelines, rules or requirements when it comes to how to dispose of red bag waste. These individual requirements can be worlds apart from one another in terms of recommended sterilization cycle (i.e. time and temperature) and handling procedures. For instance, in Virginia the rules require red bag waste to be sterilized for 90 minutes at 121°C, while in nearby Maryland the rules call for 120 minutes at 121°C.

The dichotomy doesn’t just end at the state level however. Even individual laboratory facilities (i.e. universities) that work with red bag waste have their own sets of internal policies and procedures for handling red bag waste. For example, a laboratory at the University of Virginia may mandate treatment of bio-hazardous waste one way, while only 75 miles away in a lab at Virginia Commonwealth University the processes related to handling red bag waste are different.

The expectations involved with handling red bag waste are in fact so multi-layered and far reaching that even the waste management companies charged with transporting the bio-hazardous waste (after it has been sterilized) must adhere to specific requirements related to environmental health and safety. Even the landfills themselves are under strict guidelines on how to properly dispose of red bag waste. These guidelines are often created and enforced by public health agencies at the state and federal level.

With so many moving parts and resulting regulation on how to interact with red bag waste, experts working in these individual laboratory facilities each have their own interpretation of just how it should be properly handled and sterilized. However, there are basic handling best practices every laboratory technician should follow.

Basic Handling Tips for Red Bag Waste

If you are handling red bag waste, there are several basic tips you can follow to ensure that you and everyone else in your facility is protected. Here are a few of them:

  • Wear the proper attire — If you are handling red bag waste you need to be gowned, gloved and masked. Specific attire requirements, however, are dictated by the policies and procedures of the laboratory facility and/or state regulation, if applicable. The Biocontainment Level of the laboratory also plays a role in the level of attire needed to work with red bag waste.
  • Think ahead when handling — If you are going to handle red bag waste you need to take precautions and think ahead in a very attentive manner. For example, pull, don’t push, a cart filled with red bag waste. Pushing the cart means the bio-hazardous material is in front of you — which means the potentially noxious odors or fumes would be directly in front of you if they were to escape. This could be potentially harmful, especially for people with asthma and those who are susceptible to colds.

While the above tips on how to properly handle red bag waste are imperative, so too is ensuring the biohazardous waste itself has been properly sterilized.

Sterilization Guidelines for Red Bag Waste

Bio-hazardous material can be sterilized using two basic cycles: Gravity Cycle and Vacuum Cycle.

  • Gravity Cycle — The most basic sterilization cycle. Steam displaces air in the chamber by gravity (i.e. without mechanical assistance) through a drain port.
  • Vacuum Cycle — Air is mechanically removed from the chamber and the load through a series of vacuum and pressure pulses. This allows the steam to penetrate porous areas of the load that couldn’t otherwise be reached with simple gravity displacement.  Consolidated strongly recommends sterilizing red bag waste with a vacuum cycle.

Here is a sample step-by-step process for autoclaving red bag waste from a laboratory:

  • Step 1: Before placing red bag waste into an autoclave chamber, inspect the red bag to ensure there’s nothing within it that could cause it to burst or be punctured.
  • Step 2: While exact preferences may vary, it is recommended that you leave a slight opening when closing the bag to allow both steam to enter and air to escape.
  • Step 3: Load the red bag on an autoclave-able plastic tray and insert tray into the autoclave.
  • Step 4: Close the autoclave door and run cycle.

How to Ensure Sterilization of Red Bag Waste

While there are a variety of ways to monitor sterilization (i.e. heat-sensitive tape, internal chemical indicator, etc.) the only real way to check for perfect sterility is to conduct what is known as a biological spore test, which involves placing a biological indicator inside the autoclave chamber along with the load.
Individual states mandate how frequently this test should occur. For example, some states mandate that a laboratory facility conduct the test once a month. This applies to universities and research facilities alike.

If you have additional questions about how to process red bag waste or any other questions related to autoclaves in general, please contact us for more information.

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