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Medical Waste and the Environment: What Are the Risks?

August 25, 2021

Home » Medical Waste » Medical Waste and the Environment: What Are the Risks?

Medical Waste and the Environment: What Are the Risks?

Medical Waste and the Environment: What Are the Risks? Many different environmental risks come with medical waste. Medical waste can be categorized as either universal or infectious.

Universal waste includes things like paper, plastic, and other things that do not need to be sterilized.

Infectious waste is any items that could potentially carry an infectious disease such as needles, syringes, or blood-soaked materials. It’s important to know what is required by law so you can keep your community safe.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines medical waste as “Waste generated by healthcare activities including a broad range of materials, from used needles and syringes to soiled dressings, body parts, diagnostic samples, blood, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and radioactive materials.”

The healthcare system in general is designed to make people healthier. Ironically, the waste generated from healthcare activities can do the opposite and make people ill.

The Medical Waste Tracking Act

In 1988, the Medical Waste Tracking Act was created, and then it was implemented from June 24th, 1989, until June 21st, 1991.

This act came about after medical wastes washed up on several East Coast beaches, concern over the potential health hazards prompted congress to enact the MWTA of 1988.

The Ocean Dumping Ban Act of 1988

Also in 1988, the President signed into law the Ocean Dumping Ban Act of 1988, which prohibited among other things the dumping of medical waste into ocean waters.

Medical Waste Tracking Act Purpose

The purpose of the MWTA was to provide, guidelines for the definition of medical waste, create a waste tracking system, establish standards for the separation, packaging, storage, and labeling of waste, and impose penalties for failure to track medical waste.

Penalties ranged based on the level of violation, whether it was done with intention, and if such acts endangered the lives of other individuals.

Minor violations of compliance orders would have resulted in a fine of $25,000 per day of “continued noncompliance.”

Criminal penalties against those knowingly and intentionally violating the regulations of the MWTA may face two years of imprisonment or a $50,000 fine while those guilty of knowingly endangering the life of another through noncompliance may face upwards of fifteen years imprisonment and a $1,000,000 fine.

Medical Waste and Incinerators

In 1994, the Environmental Protection Agency released a report that found that incinerators used by many hospitals throughout the United States were atop of emitter of harmful air pollutants, including mercury and dioxin.

Hospital, Medical, Infectious Waste Incinerators

Up until 1997 most medical waste from hospitals was primarily treated onsite in HMIWIs (hospital, medical, infectious waste incinerators). In 1997, the EPA released a new emissions guideline for hospitals to adhere to, this new guideline made operating an HMIWI expensive and helped expand the medical waste disposal services industry.

The old incineration became an outdated technology, the first U.S. incinerator dates back to 1885. It wasn’t long ago, if you were to look at the commercial buildings of the industrial and healthcare landscape, you would see incinerator smokestacks attached to most buildings, even in apartment buildings in NYC.

Municipal Solid Waste Incinerators

Incinerators have been used for municipal solid waste, as well as medical waste. Most MSW incinerators were built in the 1980s and have exceeded their life expectancy of 30 years.

Today, these facilities are aging, expensive to maintain, and too costly to update. Because of this, and the volatile regulatory conditions being placed on them, the industry is also too risky to finance.

Dangers of Incinerators to the Environment

The dangers of incinerators to the environment are plentiful, mainly, more than 90% of materials that end up in incinerator plants or landfills could be recycled, waste incineration is not a source of renewable energy, burning waste produces toxic emissions, contributes to climate change, waste incinerators are a financial burden, burning waste creates fewer employment opportunities than recycling, waste incineration doesn’t fit into the sustainable circular economy, and the world is embracing Zero Waste.

Incineration was a popular way to deal with medical waste, at one point there were 4,500 medical incinerators in the U.S.

Today, that number has dropped to less than 75 (including MSW incinerators).

We have listed some Pros below but as the state representative of Minnesota put it “Incineration is a 1980s solution to a 21st-century problem”.

Responsible solid waste incinerators do have their place in dealing with some medical waste. It is the only effective treatment for certain pathological waste and chemo waste. The high temperature of modern incinerators will destroy the hazards associated with this medical waste.

Not all incinerators can treat medical waste. Medical waste and hazardous waste must be treated at special incinerators, that are permitted to treat these types of wastes.

Because we have not found the perfect solution for dealing with the waste we produce. Modern solid waste incinerators do provide benefits from our waste stream.

The heat used in the incineration process can be turned into electric power, making them energy generators, commonly called WTE (waste-to-energy).

The incinerator bottom ash can be used to create blocks, pavement, tiles, shingles, and other construction materials.

The reduction of solid waste by incineration drastically reduces the amount of trash that ends up in a landfill by as much as 95%.

Medical Waste Environmental Impacts Around the Globe

It may surprise you to find out that healthcare waste around the globe, is still an issue. Not too long ago in Nepal, hospitals were simply throwing waste out in the streets, those who handled the trash were vulnerable to needle stick injuries and other medical hazards.

Some countries like Lebanon often did not properly dispose of industrial and healthcare waste, which may be mixed into the municipal solid waste stream. Lebanon has open burning policy of that waste, which has serious consequences for the health of people living nearby.

A range of scientific studies has documented the dangers that emissions from the open burning of household waste pose to human health. These include exposure to fine particles, dioxins, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, and polychlorinated biphenyls, which have been linked to heart disease, cancer, skin diseases, asthma, and respiratory illnesses.

Here in our own country, nearly 80% of U.S. incinerators are in marginalized communities. 4.4 million people across the U.S. live within three miles of incinerators, approximately 1.6 million of whom are within a three-mile radius of the twelve top emitters of PM2.5, NOx, lead, and mercury pollutants.

Medical Waste Treatment today in the U.S.

Here we will cover the most common ways to treat medical waste today.


Incinerators were once the common way to treat medical waste in the U.S., those stacks were commonplace in most community hospitals. Today, there are certain medical waste types, that must be treated by incineration to ensure decontamination. However, most medical waste is treated by other means and only about 10% is incinerated.


Autoclaving is one of the more commonly practiced ways to treat medical waste today. Autoclaving is the process of pressure, and high-temperature steam to sterilize medical waste. The process works by removing the air from the autoclave, then high pressure and high-temperature steam are introduced.

This process of removing the air and then enacting high-pressure steam ensures the steam penetrates the material, raising internal as well as external temperatures for complete disinfection.

Autoclaved waste can be shredded or compacted to reduce the impact on landfills. sterilized glass, plastic, and metal waste can be recovered after treatment and re-melted to produce other products, thus reducing landfill waste.

Chemical Treatment 

Chemical treatment of medical waste is best thought of as it is like a washing machine. The EPA identifies chemical processing as the most appropriate method to treat liquid medical waste.

Microwave Treatment

Microwave treatment of medical waste is like autoclaving medical waste, as they both use high temperatures to penetrate and decontaminate medical waste. There are microwave systems that first shred the medical waste and then process it through an automated enclosed system until it is disinfected and comes out the other end, ready for compaction or disposal.

Like Autoclaving medical waste, one of the major benefits of microwaving is, it is a clean process and no emission of any gases or residuals are created.


Mainly used for infectious waste and sharps waste including needles, scalpels, broken glass, broken capillary tubes, and exposed ends of dental wires. This method involves sterilizing waste by exposing it to a cobalt source. The cobalt gives out gamma radiations that destroy all microbes in waste.

Thermal inactivation

Thermal inactivation includes heating waste to temperatures at which infectious agents are killed. This is also good for when large amounts of liquid waste need to be disinfected.

That covers the most common ways to treat medical waste today. There are other technologies for treating medical waste like scrubbers, acid gas cleaning systems, and plasma pyrolysis to name a few.

As the world leaders look to zero waste options, so will the medical waste industry. Medical waste on a global level still has a long way to go, here in the U.S. it’s only been a few decades since the President signed into law “The Ocean Dumping Ban Act of 1988” and the “Medical Waste Tracking Act”.

Can you imagine a time when the powers that be, thought it would be OK to dump medical waste offshore? I cannot, but it happened.

Now that we have learned some history on medical waste, and the treatments used here in our towns, we will discuss what to ask when hiring a medical waste company.

What to Ask When Hiring a Medical Waste Company

What to Ask When Hiring a Medical Waste Company? The first thing to consider is experience.


How long have they been in the industry, do they know the laws and regulations specific to your service area? Here at Healthcare Waste Management, we have been providing medical waste services for decades, we have thousands of customers across the Midwest and own our own medical waste treatment plants.

The Professionalism of the Company

After you confirm that the company you are looking to partner with is in full compliance with the laws and regulations. You will want to consider the professionalism of the company. Are they in branded professional uniforms, do they dress properly, do they conduct themselves with respect, to staff and possible patients they may encounter, when picking up the waste are they unobtrusive, are they knowledgeable about the industry, can they answer your questions?

Convenient Pickup Schedules

Do they offer convenient pickup schedules? After all, we are here to service you, which means being on time, and flexible to your needs. The pickup schedule should complement your practice, not create problems for your medical facility.

What are the Medical Waste Pickup and Disposal Process?

This one can be a little tricky to navigate, you will want to clarify,

Who your medical waste contract is with?

What is the name of the company that will be picking up my waste?

In some cases, you will contract with one company and another company will service your account, it doesn’t take long to realize you could probably get a better deal just contracting with the company servicing your account.

The last thing you will want to clarify is,

Who will be treating your medical waste to make it non-infectious?

Again, in some cases, the company picking up your waste is merely a hauler meaning they drive your waste from your facility to a medical waste treatment plant and pay them to treat the waste.

The more hands (companies) in your medical waste disposal process, the more it is going to cost.

The easiest way to explain it is, it is like buying wholesale vs. retail. Everyone is going to mark up a process along the way and you will pay for it in the end.

Why Healthcare Waste Management?

With Healthcare Waste Management, we are a true service provider in your medical waste disposal, we have invested in our business to better serve your business.

We own the trucks that pick up your waste, our trucks are branded front to back, we directly employ the drivers that will come into your facility, we train the employees, from customer service to the proper use of PPE, and the latest laws and regulations when handling your medical waste.

We also own the treatment plants that will process your medical waste, with multi-technologies.

With Healthcare Waste Management, we take full responsibility for your medical waste the moment our driver removes it from your facility, offering peace of mind.

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