Tonnes of Covid Health Care Waste Becoming Environmental Hazard

ADDIS ABABA – 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, says a new WHO report.

The report 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, says WHO Global Analysis of health care waste in the context of COVID-19: status, impacts and recommendations.

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.

They point out that over 140 million test kits, with a potential to generate 2,600 tonnes of non-infectious mostly plastic waste and 731,000 liters of chemical waste (equivalent to one-third of an Olympic-size swimming pool) have been shipped.

Over 8 billion doses of vaccine have been administered globally producing 144,000 tonnes of additional waste in the form of syringes, needles, and safety boxes.

The report says less attention and resources were devoted to the safe and sustainable management of COVID-19 related health care waste as countries grappled with the immediate task of securing and quality-assuring supplies of PPE.

“It is absolutely vital to provide health workers with the right PPE,“ said Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director of WHO Health Emergencies Programme.

“But it is also vital to ensure that it can be used safely without impacting on the surrounding environment,” the Executive Director added.

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.

Today, 30% of healthcare facilities, 60% of them in the least developed countries, are not equipped to handle existing waste loads, let alone the additional COVID-19 load.

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.

The report lays out a set of recommendations, including the use of eco-friendly packaging and shipping, safe and reusable PPE, for integrating more environmentally sustainable waste practices into the current COVID-19 response and future pandemic preparedness efforts.


Featured Image Caption: A cleaner throws medical rubbish into a large, open bin at the Guru Nanak Dev Hospital after in Amritsar, India on 11 June 2020.[Photo AFP/Narinder Nanu]