COVID-19 has created an increase in medical waste, reports WHO
COVID-19 has created an increase in medical waste, reports WHO

COVID-19 has created an increase in medical waste, reports WHO

  • COVID-19 caused an increase in the demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), much of which is made of plastic.
  • Eight billion vaccine doses have generated an additional 144,000 tons of waste.
  • The World Health Organization calls for reforms in the disposal of medical waste.
  • It recommends environmentally friendly packaging, recyclable PPE and the use of recyclable or biodegradable materials.

COVID-19 has affected the world in unprecedented ways, and with it has come an increase in the amount of medical waste.

This creates its own threats to human and environmental healthaccording to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO), which calls for changes in the way medical products are manufactured and disposed of.

More than 140 million test kits have been shipped worldwide, creating potential 2,600 tonnes of general waste – most of which will be plastic – and 731,000 liters of chemical waste, the report said.

A chart showing PPE supplies used by healthcare professionals each month.

Healthcare professionals needed 89 million masks each month by 2020, according to the WHO.

Photo: Statista

On top of that, more than 8 billion vaccine doses have been administered across the globe, producing an additional 144,000 tons of waste, according to the report. This includes vials, needles and safety boxes.

“We found it COVID-19 has increased the health waste load in facilities for up to 10 times, “WHO Technical Officer Maggie Montgomery told Reuters.

All this adds up 8 million tons of plastic enter our oceans every yearand to the estimated 150 million tonnes already in circulation.

Misunderstandings about protection

A misconception about transmitting COVID-19 infection from surfaces was the cause of an increase in the production of protective equipment, including “moon suits” and gloves, according to Montgomery.

“We’ve all seen pictures of the monthly suits, we’ve all seen pictures of people vaccinating with gloves,” she said. “Of course across the board … people wear excessive PPE [personal protective equipment]. “

The WHO analysis is based on an estimated 87,000 tonnes of PPE shipped as part of a UN initiative between March 2020 and November 2021 to support countries in urgent need of such materials. Case studies mentioned in the report include Colombia, the United Kingdom, Ghana, India, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Nepal and the Philippines.

However, three out of ten of the world’s healthcare facilities lack waste separation systems, while less than a third of the facilities in the least developed countries have a basic healthcare waste management service, the report states.

In parts of Nepal, boxes have often been left around vaccination sites and openly burned, creating health and environmental risks, the report says. Air pollution and carcinogens from waste incineration are the biggest risks to communities, according to WHO’s Montgomery.

In India, the amount of medical waste increased by 17% during the first wave of the pandemic, which created challenges with waste treatment in rural areas. And in the Philippines, there was a 25% increase in the level of infectious waste, with a further 70 tonnes of waste generated by 51 hospitals, an increase of 12% compared to times before the pandemic.

Use of PPE in the UK increased the country’s carbon emissions by 1% between February and August 2020, the WHO report states. The largest contribution came from gloves, where the country used 3 billion items of PPE, resulting in 591 tons of waste per day.

“It absolutely is essential to provide healthcare workers with the right personal protective equipment, ”Said Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program. “But it is also important to ensure that it can be used safely without affecting the surrounding environment.”

WHO recommendations

In the light of its findings, the WHO calls for reform and reduction in the use of plastic packaging for medical devices. It also requires protective equipment to be made from recyclable and recyclable materials.

COVID-19 has forced the world to reckon with the gaps and neglected aspects of the waste stream, and how we produce, use and dispose of our health resources, from cradle to grave, ”says Maria Neira, WHO’s Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health.

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and as much as 8 million tonnes of plastic waste is dumped into the oceans every year. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between companies, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful action to combat plastic pollution.

In Ghana, for example, GPAP is collaborates with technology giant SAP to create a group of more than 2,000 waste pickers and measure the quantities and types of plastics that they collect. These data are then analyzed along with the prices paid throughout the value chain by buyers in Ghana and internationally.

It aims to show how companies, communities and governments can redesign the global “tag-make-dispose” economy as a circular where products and materials are redesigned, recycled and reused to reduce the environmental impact.

Read more in our impact history.

The organization also says more needs to be invested in the response to future pandemics to ensure that medical waste disposal is high on the agenda. Its recommendations include environmentally friendly packaging, recyclable PPE, the use of recyclable or biodegradable materials and investments in non-combustible waste treatment.

A systemic change in how the healthcare system handles its waste would include greater and systematic control and better procurement practices, ”said Anne Woolridge, chair of the Health Care Waste Working Group at the International Solid Waste Association.

“There is a growing understanding that health investments need to take into account environmental and climate implications, as well as a greater awareness of the co-benefits of action,” she said. “Safe and rational use of PPE will not only reduce environmental damage from waste, it will also save money, reduce potential supply shortages and further support infection prevention by changing behavior.”

World Economic Forum aims to eradicate plastic pollution through initiatives such as the Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP). GPAP brings together governments, businesses and civil society to create action at both global and national levels.


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