Imagine this. After 60 years of ranching, you're ready to retire, living off the sale of your property, which will also fund your kids' inheritance. Just as you're about to close the deal, the buyer's lawyer asks if there's any environmental hazardous waste on the property.
You stammer, thinking hard about what “environmental hazardous waste” your cattle operation could have generated in the course of a lifetime. But it's likely that you have.
If, during an environmental assessment of a ranch (conducted before the sale), any evidence of inappropriate disposal of livestock veterinary waste is found, you've violated federal law and the probable sale of the ranch is null and void.
That's the shuddering scenario Dee Griffin, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension veterinarian, depicts when it comes to improperly disposing scalpels and hypodermic needles, also known as “sharps.” Inappropriate disposal in this case is anything found on the ranch not properly contained and documented.
“It's a serious topic; being irresponsible for the disposal of your sharps could potentially cost you the farm, and the inheritance you want to pass on,” he says.
He's witnessed a scenario where the cost of the environmental cleanup of the hazardous waste exceeded the value of the ranch — an avoidable situation had the producers simply kept good documentation of where the material was buried. The worst that could then happen is that the material would have to be dug up and moved.
Spun another way, if the ranch stays within the family, what “treasures” will future generations find on the property? Danelle Bickett-Weddle, DVM and associate director of Iowa State University's Center for Food Security and Public Health, recalls many interesting finds while visiting her grandpa's farm. Keep in mind, today's landfill area might be a paddock or play area for future generations.
These are just some of the concerns Griffin and Bickett-Weddle convey to producers when emphasizing the importance of proper disposal of veterinary medical waste.
“People are more environmentally conscious than they used to be,” Bickett-Weddle says. “Before, we didn't think about the long-term effects on the environment if we dug a hole and buried things. But we've learned there's certain ways those things need to be disposed of so we don't contaminate groundwater or make it difficult for our grandkids someday to use the same land.”
Throughout the year, a livestock operation will inevitably use hypodermic needles and scalpels for anything from synchronizing cowherds to castrating bulls. It's important these tools be discarded in the right place — a container specifically designated for sharps.
First, avoid dumping needles and scalpels along with everyday trash. Griffin uses a five-gal. bucket and minimizes the volume by removing plastic caps from needles — only the metal parts need to be taken care of.
“The most important thing producers must do is have a container that's puncture-proof,” Bickett-Weddle says. Don't use milk jugs. Better yet, sharps containers are available through livestock supply retailers.
Regardless of the source, the container needs to be sealable and labeled bio-hazardous with proper documentation kept in ranch files about the contents and how they were rendered non-hazardous.
Selecting a container is the easy part. The hard part is making sense of local and state laws on proper disposal, which vary widely. Both Griffin and Bickett-Weddle hope producers will strike up a conversation with their local vet about properly disposing sharps material.
“But digging a hole and burying them in the back 40 isn't the best option,” Bickett-Weddle stresses. Instead, for a fee, private companies can dispose of the material by burning, encasing or grinding; some vet clinics collect the materials as part of their service.
Antibiotic and vaccine bottles
Empty, old or broken drug vials need proper disposal, as well. Interestingly, drug labels and literature yield very little information on disposal.
But Bickett-Weddle recommends producers deactivate any residue that's left inside bottles instead of just dumping it on the ground or down the drain.
“We blow some disinfectant back into our vaccine bottles just as part of our commitment to say that we've rendered it non-hazardous,” Griffin says.
Bickett-Weddle says another method of rendering vaccine bottles non-hazardous is to pop the tops off containers and fill with a solution of 1:10 bleach, taking care of the bleach water afterwards (not dumping on the ground). From there, containers can be recycled, if available.
But if it's an unused bottle, producers can sometimes take the product back to the clinic or manufacturer. Producers should look for an 800 number within product information to inquire about returning expired vaccines.
“So instead of just chucking them, it would be worth looking into returning because sometimes you can get your money back, or at least a product exchange,” Bickett-Weddle says.
Proper sharps disposal
Dee Griffin, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension veterinarian, recommends producers take these steps to properly contain their sharps.
- Minimize the volume
Remove all the plastic cases around syringes and needle covers.
Sealable plastic buckets work well for this. “A five-gal. bucket is more than most people are going to fill on feedyards in a whole year,” Griffin says.
Render sharps non-infectious by covering sharps in a disinfectant solution before encasing.
In containers no more than half-full of sharps, add sufficient encasement compound such as concrete or cement to entrap all the sharps. By filling containers only half full, there's room to do mixing within the same container. Seal the container.
On the outside of the container, label it “biohazard.” Separately, document the container's contents and how it was rendered non-hazardous, including the date; include this information with the ranch files to pass on to the next generation.
Either deliver to an approved landfill or bury the container on the ranch. Griffin says landfill-disposal of a five-gallon bucket in Adams County, NE is $100. If buried on the ranch, make sure to clearly document the location for possible retrieval (e.g., “buried 200 ft. south of main barn in a one-acre plot”).
For more information:
Medical waste defined: www.safetyvet.com/osha/medwaste.htm 
Guide to sharps and medical waste: www.safetyvet.com/osha/sharpsmedwaste.htm 
Infectious waste guide: www.ehrs.upenn.edu/resources/waste/bio/vet_guide.html 
Medical sharps disposal for livestock operations: www.ianrpubs.unl.edu/epublic/pages/publicationD.jsp?publicationId=436 
Pesticide container disposal: www.epa.gov/pesticides/regulating/containers.htm