Story at a glance
- The World Health Organization published a new report documenting the surging volume of health care waste caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- From masks and gloves to syringes and testing materials, thousands of tons of waste have been produced globally.
- All that waste is dangerous, experts say, as 1 in 3 health care facilities globally don’t safely manage health care waste.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is raising a red flag over the tens of thousands of extra tons of medical waste being created out of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying it poses a serious threat to human health and the environment.
WHO published a report on Tuesday that shed light on just how much medical equipment was being used throughout the coronavirus pandemic, estimating that approximately 87,000 tons of personal protective equipment (PPE) was procured between March 2020 and November 2021, but most of it is expected to have ended up as waste.
That number only reflects PPE sent by WHO through a joint United Nations emergency initiative and does not reflect additional COVID-19 commodities procured through other means, or waste generated by the public like disposable masks and gloves.
PPE isn’t the only culprit, as testing for COVID-19 and administering vaccines has also incurred a staggering amount of waste. WHO’s report found that the more than 140 million test kits shipped out to countries carries the potential to generate 2,600 tons of non-infectious waste that’s mainly plastic and 731,000 liters of chemical waste, equivalent to one-third of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
The waste estimates don’t end there, as the more than 8 billion vaccine doses shipped globally have produced 144,000 tons of additional waste in the form of syringes, needles and safety boxes.
That volume of waste is dangerous, as WHO analyzed data that indicated 1 in 3 health care facilities globally do not safely manage health care waste. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem, leading to not only a larger increase in health care waste, but a health hazard to the public.
Health care waste can potentially expose health workers to needle stick injuries, burns and pathogenic microorganisms. At the same time it can also affect communities living near poorly managed landfills and waste disposal sites through contaminating air from burning waste, poorer water quality or even disease carrying pests.
“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 Maria Neira, director of environment, climate change and health at WHO, in a statement.
WHO’s report identified multiple sources of the problem, from health care facilities being overwhelmed with increased patient loads while also managing high levels of health care waste to global mask mandates that caused the public to begin using PPE regularly.
One estimate suggested that in 2020 up to 3.4 billion single-use masks were thrown out every day, adding to the volume of plastic waste.
WHO said there are solutions to the health care waste crisis, starting with reducing the amount of unnecessary PPE through safe and rational use by applying other infection prevention measures, such as hand hygiene.
“Preventing and reducing the amount of waste generated, through safe and rational use of PPE, is one of the most effective ways to manage and reduce human and environmental impacts. Sending waste to landfill should be a last resort,” said the report.
Using smaller quantities of and more sustainable packaging, along with reusable and easily disinfected PPE and using PPE that’s made with more renewable, biobased or recyclable materials were also solutions offered by WHO.
Investing in recycling systems for general health care waste and strengthening health care waste systems is also critical.
“It is absolutely vital to provide health workers with the right PPE, but it is also vital to ensure that it can be used safely without impacting on the surrounding environment,” said Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO Health Emergencies Program.
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