Environment

Company offers recipe for waste disposal: Sanitec plans to microwave local medical refuse

November 13, 2006

A Washington, D.C., company hopes to introduce a method of cooking medical waste with microwaves to the Indianapolis market, which now trucks much of that refuse out of state for safe disposal.

Sanitec Industries Inc. has filed plans with the city to install one of its wasteprocessing systems in an empty west-side building. It plans to hire as many as 20 people at the facility to process the redbagged medical waste that flows regularly out of hospitals, and doctor or dentist offices.

"There's a lot of growth in the area," spokesman Adam Dubitsky said. "Indianapolis produces somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 [million] to 12 million pounds of medical waste a year."

But before it cooks that first red bag, Sanitec will have to make inroads with city officials, who've already rejected one potential site, and a market that greets their plan with some skepticism.

Sanitec touts an emission-free waste disposal system that works anywhere it can access a 370-volt electrical outlet and screw in a garden hose.

It plans to spend $1 million setting up its Indianapolis site if it receives the necessary approvals. Sanitec wants to park a processor the size of a small bus or cargo container inside a warehouse at the intersection of 21st and Montcalm streets.

Workers then will dump hoppers of medical refuse into the automated, sealed system. It wouldn't handle material like radiological or nuclear waste.

A "sophisticated wood chipper" will grind the glass, needles and other material to break up the waste and increase its surface area for better disinfection, Dubitsky said.

Then the processor sprays hot water on it and sends it down a corkscrew conveyer, where high-powered microwave engines-"basically a big version of what you have in your house"-cook it from the inside out, he added.

After several minutes, the waste emerges ready for a landfill. The end product is shredded, reduced in volume by about 80 percent, and devoid of any harmful organisms, Dubitsky said.

Sanitec operates mostly in California and along the East Coast. It wants to enter a market where providers ship waste as far away as Kentucky or Wisconsin.

Hospitals used to destroy their own medical waste with on-campus incinerators. That also produced steam that powered buildings, said Tom Huser, Clarian Health Partners' safety coordinator for hazardous materials and waste.

But concern over dioxins prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to toughen regulations on these incinerators starting in the late 1990s. They became too costly for hospitals to operate.

That raised the cost of medical waste disposal.

St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital used to spend about 11 cents a pound to incinerate its own medical waste. Now it pays 24 cents a pound to have it hauled away, said Wayne Fairburn, the hospital's manager of plant operations.

That's a price jump of roughly $32,000 considering that St. Vincent produces about 126 tons-or 252,000 pounds-each year.

Clarian sterilizes its infectious waste with chemicals and heat before it leaves its hospitals, so it won't be a Sanitec customer. But Huser thinks other hospitals might consider it if they can save money.

Hospitals also would want assurances that Sanitec truly destroys the waste, Fairburn said. He noted that incinerators sometimes reach temperatures as high as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

"That's a pretty good guarantee you're killing bacteria and germs," said Fairburn, who doesn't know much about Sanitec. "Some of these other equipment systems that are coming out now, there's not a full guarantee that the system can kill everything."

Dubitsky said the waste Sanitec treats comes out of the processor "completely biologically dead or inactive.

"It poses no threat whatsoever," he said. "It's also completely unrecognizable."

Even so, Indianapolis planners have concerns. Sanitec originally wanted to set up near 38th Street and Guion Road. But an Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development staff report labeled the use "too intense" for nearby homes.

The new site comes with a land buffer between the building and houses, DMD spokeswoman Anne Coffey said. Still, city planners want to take a close look at the proposal.

It had been scheduled for a Nov. 14 zoning board hearing, but DMD will ask for more time to review it, Coffey said.
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