Medical waste has ballooned during the pandemic; threatens health, environment: WHO

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in tens of thousands of tons of additional medical waste, straining healthcare waste management systems around the world, as well as threatening human and environmental health, according to a new WHO report


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The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in tens of thousands of tons of additional medical waste, straining healthcare waste management systems around the world, as well as threatening human and environmental health, according to a new WHO report.

The report stresses the urgent need to improve waste management practices even as the healthcare sector comes under increasing pressure to reduce its carbon footprint and minimize the amount of waste sent to landfill.

According to the WHO, around 87,000 tonnes of personal protective equipment (PPE) were procured between March 2020 and November 2021 and shipped to meet countries’ urgent Covid-19 response needs as part of a United Nations joint emergency initiative.

Most of this equipment is expected to have ended up as waste, indicating the scale of the Covid-19 waste problem.

In addition, more than 140 million test kits, likely to generate 2,600 tonnes of non-infectious waste (mainly plastic) and 731,000 liters of chemical waste (equivalent to one third of an Olympic swimming pool) have been shipped.

More than 8 billion doses of vaccine have also been administered, generating 144,000 tonnes of additional waste worldwide in the form of syringes, needles and safety boxes.

As countries have grappled with the immediate task of securing and ensuring the quality of PPE supplies, less attention and resources have been devoted to the safe and sustainable management of Covid-related healthcare waste. 19, according to the report.

“Providing health workers with the right PPE is absolutely vital,” Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, said in a statement.

“But it’s also essential to make sure it can be used safely with no impact on the environment,” Ryan added.

About 30% of healthcare facilities (60% in least developed countries) are not equipped to handle existing waste loads, let alone the additional burden of Covid-19.

The report also presents a series of recommendations to integrate better, safer and more environmentally friendly waste management practices.

These include using environmentally friendly packaging and shipping, safe and reusable PPE (e.g. gloves and medical masks), recyclable or biodegradable materials; investment in non-incinerable waste treatment technologies, such as autoclaves; reverse logistics to support centralized processing and investments in the recycling sector to ensure that materials, such as plastics, can have a second life.

The waste challenge of Covid-19, and the growing urgency to address environmental sustainability, provides an opportunity to strengthen systems to safely and sustainably reduce and manage healthcare waste.

“Covid-19 has forced the world to consider gaps and overlooked aspects of the waste stream and how we produce, use and dispose of our health care resources, from cradle to grave,” said Maria Neira, Director, Environment, Climate Change and Health at WHO.

“A significant shift at all levels, from the global to the hospital level, in how we manage the healthcare waste stream is a fundamental requirement of climate-smart healthcare systems,” said she added.