Ways to Treat Your Medical Waste

As you know, treating your medical waste is an essential function for any medical facility. The “cradle-to-grave” legal framework holds you responsible of its regulated disposal or destruction. Additionally, improperly managed medical waste presents a real danger to your facility, your staff, the community, and the surrounding environment.

Sterilizing-Medical-Instruments-Autoclave.jpg The health, legal, and reputational consequences of improper disposal can be severe, but compliant waste management procedures help ensure your facility operates as a safe, responsible steward of both itself and the local surroundings.

All medical waste requires some form of treatment before it’s disposed. These treatments aim to deactivate or destroy harmful substances, pathogens, and chemicals. While some larger medical facilities can afford their own equipment for handling these tasks, most prefer to partner with a fully certified medical waste management provider, which handles the expense and expertise necessary to maintain compliant treatment facilities.

In performing the proper destruction and deactivation of your medical waste, waste management providers use one of these four techniques: autoclaving, chemical disinfection, microwaving, or incineration.


An autoclave is a high-pressure, high-heat treatment chamber that usually incorporates superheated steam.

In a typical autoclave used for medical waste treatment, waste is placed into an insulated chamber. Air is removed from the chamber since it’s a thermal insulator and likely to interfere with consistent heat distribution. The chamber is then filled with superheated steam built up to very high pressure. The heated and pressurized steam effectively boils the material inside, killing all microorganisms and deactivating many chemical substances.

Autoclaved waste is biologically tested every forty hours to ensure proper treatment since effective disinfection or sterilization can’t be verified by casual inspection. Autoclaves are versatile and usually the most cost-effective treatment option. Indeed, even small facilities often maintain downscaled autoclaves to sterilize reusable instruments and other items. However, scaled waste management requires significantly larger autoclaves better suited for dedicated treatment facilities.

Recommended types of waste for autoclaving:

  • Used or contaminated sharps
  • Used bandages and gauze
  • Items worn by patients or staff, such as gloves, gauze or gowns

Waste that shouldn’t be treated with an autoclave:

  • Bulk and trace chemotherapy waste
  • Pharmaceutical waste
  • Some expired medications

Chemical Disinfection

You’re probably already familiar with chemical disinfection, as it’s used in many healthcare applications. While your facility’s staff can disinfect beds and some equipment with in-house chemicals, true industrial-scale treatment of regulated medical waste is more complex.

Along with requiring greater amounts of chemicals than in-house efforts, waste management chemical disinfectants are much stronger, making them a threat to staff and surroundings. Additionally, the chemicals used to disinfect become regulated waste themselves. Accordingly, most medical facilities choose to work with a waste management provider for all chemical disinfection of large-scale waste.

The actual technique for chemical disinfection is fairly straightforward: the materials to be treated are mixed with industrial disinfectant chemicals, then rinsed or sent directly for disposal.

Solid materials need to be shredded to ensure consistent contact with the chemicals, so this technique is best suited for purely liquid waste and materials that can be easily and thoroughly shredded. Other types of waste are usually not recommended, such as bulk and trace chemotherapy waste, and pharmaceutical waste.

Chemical treatment is effective at killing or inactivating pathogens but usually results in disinfection, rather than true sterilization. It’s not completely guaranteed to deactivate specific pharmaceuticals and other chemical compounds, which makes it a poor fit for mixed-source and bulk waste.

Microwave Treatment

Microwave treatment is as it sounds: A large microwave is used to heat the waste, which can then be discarded in a landfill. Microwave treatment equipment is identical to a home microwave in its basic function. Microwaves are generated and projected at a substance, where they agitate the molecules to generate friction, quickly raising the temperature of the substance.

Like a home unit, waste treatment microwaves work best with plenty of water molecules around, since those molecules are easy to agitate and very efficient at generating friction heat. If the waste material is dry, water may be added to facilitate the process. As with some other methods, solid waste should be shredded to ensure even penetration of the microwaves, and to prevent cold spots from forming.

In an appropriately scaled treatment, so much heat is generated that all the water converts to steam, exposing the entire contents to temperatures above 100 degrees Celsius. This neutralizes all biologicals and deactivates many, but not all, chemical substances.

Items that can receive microwave treatment:

  • Used or contaminated sharps
  • Used bandages and gauze
  • Items worn by patients and staff such as gloves, gauze and gowns

Items to avoid using microwave treatment:

  • Items unable to be shredded
  • Bulk and trace chemotherapy waste
  • Pharmaceutical waste
  • Some expired medications


Medical incineration is when waste is burned at a high temperature and reduced to ash so that it can then be disposed of in a landfill. For the best results, an industrial-scale incinerator is required to generate temperatures high enough to ensure the entire contents are incinerated, reducing the waste volume by up to 90 percent.

Nearly all types of medical waste can be incinerated, including pathological waste and general housekeeping waste, but it’s mostly recommended for these categories:

  • Trace chemotherapy and non-hazardous pharmaceutical waste
  • Some pharmaceuticals on List D
  • Some controlled substances

Some waste items on the D-list plus all items that might be explosive are not suitable for incineration.

Compliant Waste Management Techniques

While some of the techniques above can be performed in-house, even the largest facilities could benefit by working with a medical waste management provider for the most effective and thorough treatment programs. By partnering with a fully permitted and equipped provider, you can ensure your facility’s waste receives the appropriate treatment for its type, protecting your facility, the community, and the environment in the process. Need help managing your pharmaceutical waste? Let’s talk.Schedule a free consultation today.


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