Alternatives to Incineration

Medical waste incineration is a leading source of dioxin pollution, one of the most potent carcinogens known to science. Fortunately, there are viable alternatives to incineration that are safer, cleaner, do not produce dioxin, and are just as effective at disinfecting medical waste. These technologies can be used on all types of medical waste, including pathological and chemotherapy waste.

In the fall of 2001, HCWH published Non-Incineration Medical Waste Treatment Technologies (pdf), a comprehensive evaluation of medical waste treatment technologies.

In order to promote cleaner, low-cost treatment technologies for medical waste in rural areas around the world, HCWH launched an international competition in 2002. View the results in our brochure, Minimizing Harm, Maximizing Health (pdf).

In the United States, more than 5,000 medical waste incinerators were in operation in the mid 1990s. Today, fewer than 60 medical waste incinerators remain in the U.S., due to community pressure, stricter pollution-control regulations, and activist groups such as Health Care Without Harm.

Given that alternatives to incineration are available, a complete phase-out of medical waste incineration is possible and appropriate. This will require changes in state laws, persuasion of hospital systems that non-burn approaches are both effective and environmentally preferable, public education, and better segregation and reduction of waste by hospitals. HCWH’s work on incineration and medical waste continues globally with targeted projects in Argentina, India, the Philippines, Tanzania and others.

For the latest information on incineration, visit the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.

Is Incineration Required?

There are no federal requirements governing the treatment of medical waste; this is left to the states. While a handful of states require that certain portions of the waste stream (pathological waste, chemotherapy waste, recognizable body parts) be incinerated, most have no such requirements. For a listing of states and relevant requirements, see Appendix 2 of State Regulations for Pathological Waste (pdf).