The figures for health waste generated during the pandemic are exorbitant. For example, it is estimated that most of the 87,000 tonnes of equipment sent by the UN to protect medical personnel have become waste. To that must be added vaccines, tests, masks and other materials. Outside of the initiatives undertaken by the UN, the numbers are even more unfathomable.
The broad global health response to combat COVID-19 has helped vaccinate billions of people around the world, but on Tuesday it emerged that action on a planetary scale also has a downside.
A new report from the World Health Organisation reveals that the global campaign against the coronavirus has generated tens of thousands of tonnes of additional medical waste.
The UN health agency notes in its analysis that the accumulation of this waste puts enormous pressure on health care waste management systems around the world. It adds that this situation poses a threat to human and environmental health and highlights the urgent need to improve waste management practices.
The study was conducted on the basis of approximately 87,000 tonnes of personal protective equipment procured between March 2020 and November 2021 and shipped to countries through a joint UN emergency initiative. Most of this material is estimated to have ended up as waste.
The authors of the report found that the shipment of more than 140 million test kits could generate an additional 2,600 tonnes of non-infectious waste (mainly plastic) and 731,000 litres of chemical waste, while the supply of more than 8 billion doses of vaccines would have produced an additional 144,000 tonnes of waste in the form of syringes, needles and safety boxes.
The authors point out that these figures only provide an initial estimate of the scale of the problem and do not take into account any of the products purchased outside the UN initiative, or waste generated by the public, such as disposable medical masks.
While, as Dr Michael Ryan, executive director of the UN Health Emergencies Programme, stresses, “it is absolutely vital to provide health workers with the right personal protective equipment”, at the same time, “it is also vital to ensure that it can be used safely without affecting the surrounding environment”.
To achieve this, the organisation stresses the need for effective management systems, including guidance for healthcare workers on what to do when equipment and medical devices have already been used.
Hospital waste management under challenge
However, the reality of waste recycling in hospital settings is far from optimal. Currently, 30% of facilities are not equipped to manage existing health care waste loads, let alone the additional amount generated by COVID-19. This figure rises to 60% in less developed countries.
This situation exposes healthcare workers to potential needlestick injuries, burns and harmful micro-organisms while impacting communities living near poorly managed landfills and waste disposal sites through air pollution from burning waste, poor water quality or disease-carrying pests.
“COVID-19 is forcing the world to recognise the gaps and neglected aspects of the waste stream and the way we produce, use and dispose of our health resources, from cradle to grave,” said the Organisation’s Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health.
Dr Maria Neira stressed the need for significant change at all levels in the way we manage the healthcare waste stream both globally and “right down to the hospital floor”.
He added that this transformation is “a basic requirement of the climate-smart healthcare systems that many countries committed to at the recent UN Climate Change Conference and, of course, of a healthy recovery from COVID-19 and preparedness for other health emergencies in the future”.
The report’s recommendations include the use of:
Environmentally friendly packaging and transport
Safe and reusable personal protective equipment (e.g. medical gloves and masks)
Recyclable or biodegradable materials
It also advises investing in:
In waste treatment technologies that do not require incineration
In reverse logistics to support centralised treatment and investments in the recycling sector to ensure that materials, such as plastics, can have a second life.