January 2006

Medical waste incinerators fire up new markets
by Mark Henricks

The once-bountiful United States market for hospital medical waste incinerators has gone up in smoke thanks to restrictive new Environmental Protection Agency regulations. But even as the number of United States hospital incinerators has shrunk from an estimated 2,400 to 100 today, incinerator makers haven’t gone away. Instead, they are staying in the game by selling to new markets including defense, international, veterinary and laboratory customers.

Defense has proven to be an attractive market for Elastec/American Marine. “Probably 90 percent of our sales have been military the last several years, mostly to Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Jeremy Pretzsch, incinerator salesman at the Carmi, Illinois, company. The company’s $17,000 MediBurn unit is portable, quick to setup and requires little training to operate. Like other incinerators, it outputs sterile ash that occupies 5 percent or less as much space as un-oxidized medical waste.

“The unit is designed to be ready to go out of the box in minutes,” says Pretzsch. “You fill it up with fuel, plug it into a 220 volt outlet and it’s ready to go.” The company also sells to veterinary clinics and to hospitals in other countries, he says. “The larger hospitals use them primarily for medical wastes or operating theatres, instead of for general waste,” Pretzsch says. “A lot of the time it’s on islands, remote locations, mining camps and things like that have medical wastes but are hard to get into.”

Laboratories that produce medical waste remain as a market for Crawford Industries Group LLC. “I’m doing a brand new installation of a system at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta,” says Mike Nadelkov, operations director of the solid waste division for the Orlando-based company. “And we’re looking at doing another system for them next year.”

Installations like the CDC illustrate that the technology for incinerating medical waste can meet tough new EPA air-pollution standards, Nadelkov says. The problems that keep hospitals from using the proven incineration approach are largely political, he says. That is, communities don’t want medical waste incinerators, and hospitals don’t want to be associated with them.

For laboratories, however, trucking medical waste to a landfill isn’t an option because of the sometimes-dangerous materials they may be handling. Labs have to destroy waste on-site and they have to guarantee that all dangerous pathogens are rendered safe. “At the end of the day, incineration is the most effective way to assuring 100 percent of pathogens won’t get out,” Nadelkov says.

Crawford’s CB series of solid waste oxidizers are the ones the company most commonly sells for medical waste applications. The units range from the CB35SW, rated at 70 to 100 lbs per hour, to the CB212SW, rated at 400 to 650 lbs per hour. Prices range from $25,000 to $500,000 for the incinerators only. “A real large system that would require air pollution controls would easily go into the million-dollar range,” Nadelkov says.

The cost of air pollution equipment, along with political concerns, is what Bob Lee, president of Consutech Systems LLC of Richmond, Virginia, sees as the reason hospitals shy away from incineration today. “Unless it’s a fairly large hospital and they are large enough and have the foresight to put in a heat recovery boiler on that unit, it’s probably hard to justify the cost of the scrubbing equipment that’s required by the EPA,” Lee says.

The scrubbing equipment is critical for United States hospital applications because of the nature of hospital waste, Lee says. Hospitals use lots of plastics for items such as intravenous bags and tubes, and burning plastic creates pollution. Other applications, such as incinerating animal carcasses at veterinary laboratories, doesn’t generate such wastes and so doesn’t require such extensive air pollution equipment.

Consutech systems vary widely in capacity, with the smallest units processing 75 lbs. an hour and designed to operate 8 hours a day. The largest units operate continuously 24 hours a day and can handle up to 124 tons a day. A 500-lb. per hour unit with a scrubber would probably cost close to $1 million, Lee says.

The future of hospital incineration systems is probably brighter than the last few years. Manufacturers say they expect the tide to turn and for hospitals to begin installing more incinerators. “That particular circumstance is changing now from where it was three or four years ago,” says Lee. “And predictably it will change more in the next year or two, which from an economic point of view may make it more favorable to have on-site destruction of the waste with an incinerator.”

One key factor is the increase in the cost of diesel fuel used to truck medical wastes to sterilizers and to landfills after sterilization. That changes the economic equation to make incineration relatively more attractive, Lee says. Also, for hospitals that haul un-sterilized medical waste to autoclaves for processing, there is always the possibility of local regulators and environmental activists beginning to resist the passage of truckloads of red-bag waste through their communities.

“Most schools of thought would say that incineration at some point in time will make a comeback domestically,” agrees Nadelkov. His argument is that ash is, in the end, much easier to dispose of than sterilized and shredded medical waste. “”Ultimately you have to send it to a landfill,” he reasons. “If you throw it in the ground, 500 years from you’ll still have a bunch of plastic. With incineration, you’re breaking it down much further.”

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