Amid Mountains of COVID Waste, WHO Urges Sustainable Solutions
Billions of masks and gloves have been discarded during the pandemic.

Almost four times the usual medical waste was generated in New Delhi during the height of India’s COVID-19 pandemic in May 2021 when all COVID-19 waste was mistakenly classified as infectious, according to a new report issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday. 

Most of the approximately 87,000 tonnes of personal protective equipment (PPE) procured between March 2020- November 2021 through a joint UN emergency initiative is expected to have ended up as waste.

Over 140 million test kits, with a potential to generate 2,600 tonnes of waste and 731,000 litres of chemical waste have also been shipped, according to data from the United Nations (UN) COVID-19 supply portal.

But the report authors warn that the portal’s data represents “a small fraction of global procurement”.

“It does not take into account any of the COVID-19 commodities procured outside of the [UN] initiative, nor waste generated by the public like disposable medical masks,” they point out.

One estimate suggests that up to 3.4 billion single use-masks were discarded every day in 2020.

Over the past two years, over 296-million people have been confirmed with COVID-19.

“Each of these cases, as well as hundreds of millions more people – because of exposure to COVID-19, travel, work or leisure obligations – will undergo COVID-19  testing.  

“Finally,  over nine billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered, covering 35% of the global population. Billions more are planned. These activities all produce an enormous amount of COVID-19-related waste, a proportion of which is potentially infectious,” the report notes.

About a third of all healthcare facilities (and 60% in the least developed countries) are not equipped to handle existing waste loads, let alone the additional COVID-19 load. Much of this will end up in landfills.

Mistaken classification of all COVID waste as hazardous

“Many facilities and countries mistakenly classified 100% of COVID-19 healthcare waste as hazardous, rather than the 10–15% level typically generated from routine health service provision,” according to the report.

“ A  number of major cities and countries that have experienced a large number of cases issued guidance that all waste generated by COVID-19 patients should be classified and treated as infectious. 

“This is despite the fact that SARS-CoV-2 is an enveloped virus, which means that it is inactivated relatively quickly by environmental factors such as sunlight or heat.  Most  evidence  indicates  that  the  main  route  of  transmission  of  the  virus  is  directly  from  person to person through exhaled respiratory particles, not fomites.”

It points to gloves as one of the most commonly overused or misused items of PPE. In many cases, gloves are not necessary and proper hand-washing would suffice – such as vaccinations,  measuring temperature and blood pressure – don’t need gloves.  

“Overuse of gloves was a longstanding problem even before COVID-19, resulting in unnecessary financial costs and adverse environmental impacts,” according to the report.

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

Dr Maria Neira, Director of WHO Environment, Climate Change and Health

Reuse, recycle, don’t burn

The report lays out a set of recommendations for integrating better, safer, and more environmentally sustainable waste practices into the current COVID-19 response and future pandemic preparedness.

These include safe and reusable gloves, aprons and masks; using recyclable or biodegradable materials, and using non-burn waste treatment technologies, such as autoclaves (steam-cleaning machines).

“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, which many countries committed to at the recent UN Climate Change Conference,” said said Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health. 

Meanwhile, Dr Anne Woolridge, Chair of the Health Care Waste Working Group at the  International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), says that the “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 prevention by changing behaviours”.

The tens of thousands of tonnes of extra medical waste from the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has put tremendous strain on health care waste management systems around the world, threatening human and environmental health and exposing a dire need to improve waste management practices, according to the report. 


Image Credits: Brian Yurasits/ Unsplash, Hermes Rivera/ Unsplash, Planetary Health Eastern Africa Hub.

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