The Pros and Cons of Medical Waste Treatment Technologies

One question that you should always ask your waste management provider, and one I consistently receive is “what do you do with this waste when you take it away?” The answer is not always so simple.

Regulated infectious waste and sharps waste is a subject that has been discussed and heavily regulated in the past three decades. In fact, the fear and stigma associated with this type of waste have largely dissipated over time in accordance with innovations in medical waste treatment technologies. Here are some of the most common treatments to help you understand your waste stream better to help you choose the right provider for you.

Autoclave or high heat steam waste treatment

Autoclave or high heat steam treatment is the most commonly used treatment method for medical waste in 2021. Essentially waste is put into a very large pressure chamber and a steam injection is used to bring the waste to a temperature of 121 degrees Celsius or 250 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 30 minutes.

The importance is placed on pressure as a sterilizing agent with its four parameters of steam, pressure, temperature, and time. This is necessary to destroy the microorganisms. There are a few different types of autoclaves which you can read about here on the CDC's website. The waste is then typically shredded or compacted and sent to an incinerator or landfill for final disposal.


  • The autoclave is a tried and true technology in disinfecting the waste prior to final disposal allowing for a more sustainable disposal.
  • It is also the most cost effective technology to implement into your waste stream.


  • The biproduct post treatment is still a waste item. This waste still goes into landfills or gets incinerated as a treated solid waste. Some companies claim to send the waste to a recycler but this doesn't mean the waste is accepted as a recycled product. Often it is rejected and ends up landfilled anyways.


Incineration or waste to energy waste treatment

Incineration/Waste to energy is another tried and true method of waste treatment. All pathological and chemotherapeutic waste as well as many non-rcra hazardous medications should be processed via incineration as a viable zero landfill initiative. Incinerators reduce the solid mass of the original waste by 80%–85% and the volume by 95%–96%. Although it doesn't completely avoid landfills, it is still extremely effective in minimizing landfill volume. This is called bypass waste or diversion waste.


  • The actual process is rather straightforward and self explanatory, the waste is burned at a high temperature.
  • The upside is that the energy captured off of modern incinerator plants (waste to energy) and the fact that the resulting byproduct as ash make this waste treatment more environmentally friendly compared to alternate methods.


  • One of the major drawbacks here is cost and the cost of this waste destruction method only gets more expensive in time. For starters medical waste treatment and disposal facilities need to be permitted by the state and federal government to accept regulated medical waste.
  • Facilities must also meet clean air requirements as a partial to zero emissions standards set by the EPA, which has added significant costs to the operation of waste incineration.


Plasma Gasification

Plasma gasification is an older technology that is starting to gain popularity with sustainability and ecofriendly movements. Like an incinerator, the gasifier utilizes an arc torch to gasify the waste. The arc is incredibly hot and similar to what happens with welding applications but on a larger scale. This arc burns at temperatures as hot as the sun, ranging from 3,600 to 25,200 °F (2,000 to 14,000 °C ), and turns matter into its fourth state which is plasma gas. The process creates syngas which can be used as a fuel source making the plasma torch a self sustaining operation.


  • It is a fully renewable, and zero landfill option. There are zero emissions because the waste is never burned its gasified, all of the gases are captured and reused as fuel.
  • The excess syngas can be sold or used to create electricity.
  • The heavy metals separate for easy extraction and the result is a carbon rich obsidian glass that can be used as an aggregate for roadways.


  • It is still relatively capital intensive. The US military uses this technology on navy ships, and there are a few investors around the country developing this technology for waste treatment.


Other medical waste treatment technologies

There are some alternative medical waste treatment technologies such as chemical treatment, and microwave technology. These are effective but not always efficient technologies and are not nearly as common as autoclave. Some older medical waste companies still use this technology as a legacy system, and some companies are utilizing tissue digesters and chemical treatment as a way to avoid the costs of shipping and processing via incineration.

There are also some on-site treatment options and small autoclave systems for large and mid sized generators but these require hefty capital investment and have many healthcare systems are steering clear. Simply put they place all the risk on the generator, and the generator still needs to send treated medical waste off site. In theory these systems are designed with practicality in mind but fail to account for the many other variables involved in medical waste management.

At the end of the day, understanding what happens to medical waste, including the landfill pros and cons, as well as the pros and cons of incineration and waste to energy, is crucial. There are many viable means of destruction and as the medical waste industry matures, companies are getting better at implementing renewable treatment technologies which is driving the cost down and reducing environmental impact.

Companies are finding new ways to clean up medical waste in a way that saves money and helps the environment. Our company can help you figure out what your company is doing and what we can do to help.

We would love to help you identify what treatment technology your current company is using or even discuss what we use here at United Medical Waste Management.