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The Big Three- Get to know how regulated medical waste is treated

Part 1: Incineration


If you are on this site, then you probably have to deal with medical waste all the time. But have you ever wondered what happens to the waste you produce once it leaves your facility?


Over the next few blog entries we are going to discuss the three most common forms of treatment for regulated medical waste. In this post we will start off by diving into the process of incineration.


Incineration is still today the most widely used process for treating regulated medical waste. The process involves burning the waste produced at very high temperatures. There are three main types of incinerators. They are controlled air, excess air, and rotary kiln. As controlled air incinerators make up more than 95% of the incinerators used, let’s look a little deeper into how they work.


The first step in this process is to feed the waste into the lower combustion chamber. Combustion air then enters the lower chamber from beneath the incinerator hearth. The temperatures in this chamber can reach 1,400°F-1,800°F, which sterilizes and dries the waste. In the second step, excess air is added to the gases formed in the lower chamber to complete combustion. The temperatures in the second chamber are significantly higher than those in the lower chamber, ranging from 1,800°F to 2,000°F. Once the waste is processed through both combustion chambers, the ash and waste feed are ready to be removed, which can be done manually or automatically. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) See below picture for a detailed diagram.


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The process of incineration, like anything else, has a long list of pros and cons. With incineration, some advantages we see are around an 80-90% decrease in the volume of the waste once treated. This is important to note because, with limited landfill space, the ash produced will take up considerably less space than that which has been left untreated. We also see that the heat generated from these incinerators can be used to generate steam that has the potential to power a turbine to generate electricity. Incineration is also an adequate treatment process for all infectious waste. (The Pros and Cons of Medical Waste Incinerators)


We do however have to consider the negative effects that incineratiors may pose. Due to the high volume of plastic in medical waste, the concern of toxic emissions being produced is a topic that often arises. Though we have seen advances intechnology that have reduced the amount of emissions produced by medical waste incinerators, many people are still opposed to this method of treatment due to the pollution risks involved. (The Pros and Cons of Medical Waste Incinerators)


Alternatives to incineration are available. Stay tuned for our next section delving into the autoclave treatment processes of medical waste.