Fire is by no means the only way of disposing of medical waste. As more hospitals scrap their incinerators, they have been forced to seek other means of disposal. Many have chosen alternative technologies, including a steam-sterilization method called autoclaving. After sterilization, the waste is shredded and often trucked to a landfill.
Barnes Hospital, the flagship of the BJC Health System, installed an autoclave to dispose of its waste after its bid to construct a medical-waste incinerator was rejected by the city of St. Louis in 1994. The other dozen hospitals in the system rely on incineration, though BJC is now encouraging Stericycle to provide an alternative. The company's facility in North St. Louis already has an autoclave on the premises but currently has it mothballed.
"We have intentions of installing that and using it," says Richard Geisser, a Stericycle vice president. "(But) there is always going to be a certain percentage of the volume of waste that requires incineration."
Before its acquisition of BFI's medical-waste operations last year, Stericycle promoted itself as the exclusive provider of electrothermal-deactivation (ETD) technology, an innovative process of destroying infectious waste without polluting the air. Indeed, ETD is still touted on Stericycle's Web site as an efficient alternative to incineration. The company uses the technology at three of its U.S. plants, and, in 1998, it launched a joint ETD venture in Mexico City.
The ETD process decontaminates biohazardous waste with low-frequency radio waves. As its name implies, Stericycle is noted for sterilizing plastic medical waste and recycling it into packaging material for the medical-supply industry. This worthy effort helps cut down on the amount of dioxin that would have been created by burning the rubbish and also lowers the total volume of waste that would otherwise need to be sent to a landfill.
Other alternatives to incineration include an economical microwaving process that has been approved in most states. Available microwave systems can break down waste to its basic elements, such as carbon, without the aid of combustion. The process produces no emissions. Another method, gasification, reduces organic matter to its chemical elements. There is also a thermal alternative that uses superheated water to turn waste into a confettilike substance.
But exploring safer alternatives to incineration hasn't been one of Stericycle's immediate goals in St. Louis. Instead, it's decided to keep pouring out the smoke.