About 87,000 tonnes of personal protective equipment procured between March 2020 and November 2021 to support countries’ urgent COVID-19 response needs is expected to have ended up as waste.
Tens of thousands of tonnes of extra medical waste from the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has put tremendous strain on health care waste management systems around the world, threatening human and environmental health and exposing a dire need to improve waste management practices, according to a new WHO report.
The WHO Global analysis of health care waste in the context of COVID-19: status, impacts and recommendations bases its estimates on the approximately 87,000 tonnes of personal protective equipment (PPE) that was procured between March 2020- November 2021 and shipped to support countries’ urgent COVID-19 response needs through a joint UN emergency initiative. Most of this equipment is expected to have ended up as waste.
The authors note that this just provides an initial indication of the scale of the COVID-19 waste problem. It does not take into account any of the COVID-19 commodities procured outside of the initiative, nor waste generated by the public like disposable medical masks.
The study points out that over 140 million test kits, with a potential to generate 2,600 tonnes of non-infectious waste (mainly plastic) and 731,000 litres of chemical waste (equivalent to one-third of an Olympic-size swimming pool) have been shipped, while over 8 billion doses of vaccine have been administered globally producing 143 tonnes of additional waste in the form of syringes, needles, and safety boxes.
Greenpeace flagged COVID-19 waste mid-2021
Environmentalists at Greenpeace had, in August 2021, flagged the issue of environmental waste arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Greenpeace Taiwan said that at the apex of the pandemic, from early February to mid May, Taiwan alone produced and used roughly 1.3 billion surgical masks. “Assuming each face mask weighs 4 grams, that’s 5,500 metric tonnes of general waste generated within a span of three months,” according to Greenpeace.
“To put that figure into perspective, each garbage truck is capable of transporting 5 tonnes of trash at a time, so Taiwan produced enough face masks over a three-month period to fill 1,100 garbage trucks,” Greenpeace had said.
Greenpeace had warned that chemicals contained in the masks are a potential threat to the environment. The organisation also said that discarded face masks can become floating marine debris and impact the marine ecosystems.
Having effective management systems
The WHO report, produced by a multidisciplinary team led by the WHO water, sanitation, hygiene and health unit it more authoritative as it has involved specialists from multiple departments within the UN system and also from think tanks. The report’s authors say that as the UN and countries grappled with the immediate task of securing and quality-assuring supplies of PPE, less attention and resources were devoted to the safe and sustainable management of COVID-19 related health care waste.
“It is absolutely vital to provide health workers with the right PPE, “said Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director, WHO Health Emergencies Programme. “But it is also vital to ensure that it can be used safely without impacting on the surrounding environment.”
This means having effective management systems in place, including guidance for health workers on what to do with PPE and health commodities after they have been used.
“Waste management is an integral part of the supply chain, as a result of the use and expiry of health products. Inadequate and inappropriate handling of health-care waste can have serious public health and environmental consequences and can significantly impact on the health of people and planet,” says Dr Mandeep Dhaliwal, Director HIV Health and Development at the UNDP.
The WHO says that 30 per cent of existing healthcare facilities are not equipped to handle existing waste loads, let alone the additional COVID-19 load. 60 per cent of which lie in the least developed countries. This potentially exposes health workers to needle stick injuries, burns and pathogenic microorganisms, while also impacting communities living near poorly managed landfills and waste disposal sites through contaminated air from burning waste, poor water quality or disease carrying pests.
“In the face of COVID-19, sustainable health care waste management is more important than ever to protect communities, health workers, and the planet and prevent pollution,” said Ruth Stringer, Science and Policy Coordinator at international nongovernmental organization Health Care Without Harm.
“COVID-19 has forced the world to reckon with the gaps and neglected aspects of the waste stream and how we produce, use and discard of our health care resources, from cradle to grave,” said Dr Maria Neira, Director, Environment, Climate Change and Health at WHO.
The report lays out a set of recommendations for integrating better, safer, and more environmentally sustainable waste practices into the current COVID-19 response and future pandemic preparedness efforts and highlights stories from countries and organizations that have put into practice in the spirit of “building back better”.
The analysis comes at a time when the health sector is under increasing pressure to reduce its carbon footprint and minimize the amount of waste being sent to landfill — in part because of the great concern about the proliferation of plastic waste and its impacts on water, food systems and human and ecosystem health.
Image: Disposable masks litter the streets of Brooklyn, New York. Tracie Williams / Greenpeace