WHO: COVID-19 Waste Places Strain on Medical Waste Management System

Stefanie Valentic, Editorial Director

February 3, 2022

2 Min Read

In at least 47 of the world's least-developed countries, half of health care clinics lack basic water services.

With the absence of adequate environmental services and sanitation, the impact of health care waste during the pandemic has been devastating, according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Dr Maria Neira, Director, Environment, Climate Change and Health, WHO, said in a statement that “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."

Data collected in 2019 show that one in three healthcare facilities across the glove do not manage medical waste. A deficiency in waste management systems in hospital settings during the pandemic has contributed to a medical waste crisis, which the WHO indicates has strained already under-resourced facilities and increased environmental ramifications. 

The data are examined in a new WHO report titled, "Global analysis of health care waste in the context of COVID-19." The report provided analysis based on an estimated 87,000 tonnes of personal protective equipment (PPE) that the acquired between March 2020 and November 2021. The majority of the equipment, which was used in the fight against COVID-19 via a joint UN emergency initiative, ended up in landfills. The analysis does not factor in publicly-procured medical masks or other purchases made outside of the initiative.

While the immediate need for PPE was prioritized, fewer resources were dedicated to the proper disposal of 140 million test kits, which produced about 2,600 tonnes of mainly plastic, non-infectious waste. The kits resulted in 731,000 litres of chemical waste, what WHO equated to one-third of an Olympic-sized swimming pool. In addition, syringes, needles and safety boxes comprised 144,000 tonnes of waste generated.

“It is absolutely vital to provide health workers with the right PPE, “said Dr 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.”

The report's recommendations to manage medical waste build upon a previous report titled, "WHO manifesto for a healthy recovery from COVID-19: prescriptions and actionables for a healthy and green." Environmental sustainability had driven the impetus behind the study of waste management systems and COVID-19.

An emphasis on eco-friendly packaging and shipping, reusable gloves and masks. A focus on recyclable or biodegradable materials must be achieved as well as an "investment in non-burn waste treatment technologies, such as autoclaves; reverse logistics to support centralized treatment and investments in the recycling sector to ensure materials, like plastics, can have a second life."

"Strong national policies and regulations" must be enforced along with adjustments in reporting, accountability, behavior change support and workforce development, and increased budgets and financing, the WHO recommended.


About the Author(s)

Stefanie Valentic

Editorial Director, Waste360

Stefanie Valentic is the editorial director of Waste360. She can be reached at [email protected].


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