Incineration vs. Autoclaving

All waste generated by health care activities must be properly treated prior to disposal.

There are numerous methods to treat medical waste and render it less hazardous, each with its own set of advantages and liabilities.  The proper disposal of medical waste is a multi-pronged issue that is regulated on both the state and federal level.

There are two primary methods to deal with medical waste once it’s been disposed of in properly-labeled medical waste packaging: incineration and autoclaving. While both treat medical waste, the two are vastly different procedures. Each serve a different purpose, and whether to autoclave or incinerate is contingent on the type of medical waste that is being disposed of.

What is incineration?

With incineration, medical waste is burned in a controlled manner in a dedicated incinerator.

Incineration comes with a few benefits, mostly that it reduces what goes into landfills, which can save municipalities on tax dollars. The waste is completely sterilized, the volume is reduced, and the waste is kept out of the physical environment.

Through Waste-to-Energy processes, incineration can be used to produce electricity and heat that can be used to power and heat nearby buildings. While some states and localities actively encourage incineration as the preferred method of treatment, others have enacted moratoriums on incinerators to suspend permitting until further information on the safety of the option is available.

What is autoclaving?

Autoclaving, also known as steam sterilization, is a process that uses moist heat to sterilize various medical waste, from medical instruments, applicators, and other items that contain microorganisms. When medical waste is placed inside the autoclave, they are exposed to high temperature steam. The time varies based on the amount and physical size of the equipment that needs sterilization. This hot steam will kill germs that simple detergent or boiling water can not.

During the sterilizing process, steam is continuously entering the autoclave to thoroughly kill all dangerous microorganisms. Autoclaving still has limitations. It does not take care of hazardous materials like chemical waste and pharmaceutical waste. It is the most commonly utilized alternative to incineration.  It is less costly and carries no documented health impacts.

Incineration vs. Autoclaving?

As mentioned, incineration vs. autoclaving will depend on the type of waste being disposed of. Incineration should be used for:

  • Trace chemotherapy waste
  • Pathological waste, including body parts and other biological tissues
  • Some types of hazardous waste

Autoclaving is reserved for what’s known as “red bag” waste, including gauze, bandages, gowns, sharps, and other medical equipment.

Unlike standard trash tossed into garbage containers, medical waste must be treated with caution and care. All public facilities must work with reputable medical waste disposal companies to collect and treat materials in a safe manner.

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Incineration vs. Autoclaving


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