Beat Plastic Pollution

COVID-19 has created a medical waste surge, the WHO reports

  • COVID-19 caused a surge in 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 is calling for reforms surrounding the disposal of medical waste.
  • It recommends eco-friendly packaging, reusable PPE and the use of recyclable or biodegradable materials.

COVID-19 has impacted the world in ways, and with it has come a surge in volumes of medical waste.

This is creating its own threats to human and environmental health, according to a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) which is calling for changes in the way medical products are made and disposed of.

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

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

Healthcare workers needed 89 million masks every month in 2020, according to the WHO.

Image: 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 glass vials, needles and safety boxes.

“We found that COVID-19 has increased healthcare waste loads in to up to 10 times,” WHO Technical Facilities Officer Maggie Montgomery told Reuters.

All of this is adding to the 8 million tons of plastics entering our ocean every year, and to the estimated 150 million tons already circulating.

Misperceptions about protection

A misperception about the transmission of COVID-19 infection from surfaces was the cause for an increase in the production of protective gear, including “moonsuits” and gloves, according to Montgomery.

“We’ve all seen photos of the moonsuits, we’ve all seen photos of people vaccinating with gloves,” she said. “Certainly across the board… people are wearing excessive PPE [personal protective equipment].”

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

However, three in 10 of the world’s healthcare facilities lack systems to segregate waste, while in the least developed countries less than a third of facilities have a basic healthcare waste management service, the report says.

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

In India, volumes of medical waste rose 17% during the first wave of the pandemic, creating waste treatment challenges in rural areas. And in the Philippines, there was a 25% increase in infectious waste levels, with an additional 70 tons of waste generated by 51 hospitals, an increase of 12% compared with pre-pandemic times.

Use of PPE in England increased the country’s carbon emissions by 1% between February and August 2020, the WHO’s report said. The greatest contribution came from gloves, with the country using 3 billion items of PPE, resulting in 591 tonnes of waste per day.

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

The WHO’s recommendations

In light of its findings, the WHO is calling for reform and a reduction in the use of plastic packaging for medical devices. It is also calling for protective gear to be made from reusable 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 discard our healthcare resources, from cradle to grave,” says WHO Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health, Maria Neira.

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. 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 businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution.

In Ghana, for example, GPAP is working with technology giant SAP to create a group of more than 2,000 waste pickers and measuring the quantities and types of plastic that they collect. This data is then analysed alongside the prices that are paid throughout the value chain by buyers in Ghana and internationally.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Read more in our impact story.

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

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

“There is growing appreciation that health investments must consider environmental and climate implications, as well as a greater awareness of co-benefits of action,” she said. “Safe and rational use of PPE will not only reduce environmental harm from waste, it will also save money, reduce potential supply shortages and further support infection preventing by changing behaviours.”

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


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