Tonnes of COVID healthcare waste exposes waste management failures

Over 8 billion doses of vaccine have been administered globally which resulted in 144,000 tonnes of additional waste in the form of syringes, needles, and safety boxes. [SHUTTERSTOCK/Syda Productions]

A report from World Health Organisation (WHO) found that COVID-19 response resulted in ‘tens of thousands of tonnes’ of additional medical waste, calling for better management of health care waste at all levels, from hospitals to landfills.

On Tuesday (1 February), the UN health body published the ‘Global analysis of health care waste in the context of COVID-19’.

Around 87,000 tonnes of personal protective equipment (PPE) was procured in the period between March 2020 and November 2021 and shipped to countries in need through a joint UN emergency response. 

“Most of this equipment is expected to have ended up as waste,” the WHO press release said. But the analysis also highlighted that this is only “a small fraction of global procurement”, as PPE produced outside of the UN system is not taken into account – as well as public waste such as face masks. 

The report found that the over 140 million test kits might be responsible for generating up to 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. 

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

“It is absolutely vital to provide health workers with the right PPE,” said Michael Ryan, Executive Director at WHO Health Emergencies Programme. “But it is also vital to ensure that it can be used safely without impacting on the surrounding environment.” 

But as COVID-19 surged, more attention was paid to securing supplies of PPE, while less attention was given “to the safe and sustainable management of COVID-19 related health care waste,” as written in the WHO press release.

It means that countries lacked effective management systems in place, as well as guidance for health workers on what to do with PPE and health commodities after they have been used.

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Waste management needs to be improved

The analysis called for actors to use the momentum of the “COVID-19 waste challenge and increasing urgency to address environmental sustainability” to improve healthcare waste management and minimise the quantity being thrown away to landfills. 

“Safe and rational use of PPE will not only reduce environmental harm from waste, but it will also save money, reduce potential supply shortages and further support infection prevention by changing behaviours,” said Anne Woolridge, Chair of the Health Care Waste Working Group at International Solid Waste Association (ISWA). This is called a “win-win” scenario in the analysis.

The report stated that to in order to improve national policies of healthcare waste management, monitoring, health care workers training and additional funding should be introduced. Recommendations set out in the report include “using eco-friendly packaging and shipping, safe and reusable PPE” as well as investing in non-burn waste treatment technologies and recycling.

“A systemic change in how health care manages its waste would include greater and systematic scrutiny and better procurement practices,” said Woolridge. 

Maria Neira, Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health at WHO highlighted that the change needs to happen at all levels “from the global to the hospital floor, in how we manage the health care waste stream is a basic requirement of climate-smart health care systems.”

She added that many countries agreed to ensure that at the recent UN Climate Change Conference.

At the moment 30% of healthcare facilities are not “equipped to handle existing waste loads, let alone the additional COVID-19 load.”

This might result in needlestick injuries, burns and pathogenic microorganisms for health workers. Furthermore, poorly managed landfills and waste disposal sites through contaminated air from burning waste, poor water quality, or disease-carrying pests can impact communities living nearby. 

The European Commission has reassured that it is keeping an eye on waste management in the member states. In an interview for EURACTIV, European Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius stated that member states cannot use the COVID crisis as an excuse to weaken the EU’s environmental and health protection efforts.

“Where we see an increase in waste linked to the current health crisis – in particular of waste from healthcare facilities – we work closely with the member states to deal with the challenges they are facing,” he said, adding that the Commission is also monitoring the overall situation with waste generation.

Health Brief: The vaccines we waste

While Europeans are rushing to get their booster before nine months – or even less – have passed since their first jab, fewer than 10% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose and the much-needed doses seem to be running out of date.

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna]

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