The Covid-19 pandemic has led to tens of thousands of tonnes of extra medical waste, putting tremendous strain on health care waste management systems around the world, as well as threatening human and environmental health, according to a new WHO report.
The report urges the dire need to improve waste management practices even as the health sector is under increasing pressure to reduce its carbon footprint and minimise the amount of waste being sent to landfill.
According to WHO, approximately 87,000 tonnes of personal protective equipment (PPE) was procured between March 2020- November 2021 and shipped to support countries' urgent Covid-19 response needs through a joint UN emergency initiative.
Most of this equipment is expected to have ended up as waste, indicating the scale of the Covid-19 waste problem.
Further, over 140 million test kits, with a potential to generate 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) have been shipped.
More than 8 billion doses of vaccine have also been administered, globally producing 144,000 tonnes of additional waste in the form of syringes, needles, and safety boxes.
While countries grappled with the immediate task of securing and quality-assuring supplies of PPE, less attention and resources were devoted to the safe and sustainable management of Covid-19 related health care waste, the report said.
"It is absolutely vital to provide health workers with the right PPE," said Michael Ryan, Executive Director, WHO Health Emergencies Programme, in a statement.
"But it is also vital to ensure that it can be used safely without impacting on the surrounding environment," Ryan added.
About 30 per cent of healthcare facilities (60 per cent in the least developed countries) are not equipped to handle existing waste loads, let alone the additional Covid-19 load.
The report also lays out a set of recommendations for integrating better, safer, and more environmentally sustainable waste practices.
These include using eco-friendly packaging and shipping, safe and reusable PPE (e.g., gloves and medical masks), recyclable or biodegradable materials; investment in non-burn waste treatment technologies, such as autoclaves; reverse logistics to support centralised treatment and investments in the recycling sector to ensure materials, like plastics, can have a second life.
The Covid-19 waste challenge and increasing urgency to address environmental sustainability, offer an opportunity to strengthen systems to safely and sustainably reduce and manage health care waste.
"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, Environment, Climate Change and Health at WHO.
"Significant change 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.