AskNadia: Disposing of My Insulin Syringes

Dear Nadia,

I put my syringes in a bleach bottle and throw it in the garbage. My neighbor told me I should not do that. What do you think?



Dear Robert,

I think your neighbor gave you some good advice. Here’s why:

First, the size of the problem with safe sharps (needles, syringes, lancets) disposal is big. The Coalition for Safe Community Needle Disposal estimates that 13.5 million US sharps users dispose of 7.8 billion sharps in one year. That’s a huge number of instruments that are potentially deadly sources of infection. Accidental contact with them, where a needle pricks somebody who is handling them, has become a major concern among public health officials. Improperly disposed needles can spread disease. We’re all familiar with the concerns that surrounded HIV when it first entered public consciousness. Healthcare workers with AIDs patients were at risk of HIV infection from accidental pricks from syringes used on patients or improperly disposed.

Accidental Pricks Can Also Spread Hepatitis B and C

Since that time, hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices developed a strict protocol for disposing of sharps. One practice not included in that protocol was disposal by dropping used syringes into a plastic bottle. You could say that your plastic bleach bottle, because it takes dozens of years to decompose, is sufficient protection against accidental pricks. But the concern here is that your bleach bottle could be crushed under the tread of a bulldozer that is laying down a new layer in a sanitary landfill or moving trash around at a recycling center. The needles can spill out of the destroyed and pose a danger to other workers in those locations.

Admittedly, there is a small statistical chance of that happening, but this is a true “safe-not-sorry” situation. A small industry and infrastructure have grown up around safe sharps disposal:

  • The creation of distinctive sharps containers made of very hard plastic, colored red to announce their danger, and topped by strong caps that can be firmly closed to protect against accidental pricks
  • A tightly controlled chain of possession. Whereas a plastic beach bottle can be thrown in among huge piles of household trash, sharps container contents are specifically isolated and sent to a medical waste disposal site where they are burned. The containers are recycled after a thorough disinfection and cleanup.
  • Wide distribution. In most cases, particularly among health plans, sharps containers are free. Typically syringe users will pick up an empty sanitized container and use it until it’s filled, then swap the filled unit for an empty unit.

Other sources of container exchanges are endocrinologists, city or county health departments, pharmacies, your local waste disposal company, and mail-back programs. It’s fairly simple to do a Google search to get an idea of what’s available where you live.

You might also be interested in reading these other related stories from


Coalition for Safe Community Needle Disposal

US Food and Drug Administration

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About Nadia:

Nadia is a diabetes advocate that was not only born into a family with diabetes but also married into one. She was propelled at a young age into “caretaker mode,” and with her knowledge of the scarcity of resources, support, and understanding for people with diabetes, co-founded Diabetes Interview, now Diabetes Health magazine.

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2 thoughts on “AskNadia: Disposing of My Insulin Syringes

  • July 11, 2016 at 2:52 am

    Where do you have access to these free exchange programs for specialty sharps containers that you are mentioning in your post? Where I am (Twin Cities, MN) I know of no such program. You must pay out of pocket to buy a sharps container (insurance does not cover purchases of these containers) AND once it is full you must pay an additional disposal fee to do anything with the full sharps container other than throw it in the trash. Living well below the poverty level I can not afford the out of pocket costs for these disposal programs.

    I use a clear (20 oz) sports drink bottle which takes about a month for me to fill (I only use pen needles and lancets). To go to a bleach bottle or laundry detergent bottle which seem to be suggested by some disposal guides would be more than 6 months to fill and I don’t have room on the small counter next to my refrigerator (where I do all of my testing/injections) to place these larger containers.

    • August 1, 2016 at 12:47 am

      Hospital pharmacies will have these programs but they don’t advertise it. I would also call different pharmacies and ask them on the phone if they have a free program. Let me know how successful this is for you.


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