Health & Science

WHO is concerned by tonnes of COVID-19 medical waste in healthcare facilities

The World Health Organization assessed the impact of medical waste in healthcare facilities created by the UN procurement program of medical equipment.

Personal protective equipment medical waste: mask on the beach
© Jonathan Farber

Syringes, test kits, medical masks… The World Health Organization is concerned by all the medical waste produced by healthcare facilities to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

The World Health Organization published a report on February 1 highlighting that 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”.

Between March 2020 and November 2021, 87,000 tonnes of personal protective equipment, such as medical masks or gloves, have been procured and shipped globally via the United Nations program.

The report only focuses on material and equipment shipped by the United Nations COVID-19 Supply Portal between March 2020 and November 2021. As such, it only represents a small fraction of global procurement carried out by local authorities or individuals.

Yet, the UN shipped over 140 million test kits throughout the world, which has the potential to generate 2,600 tonnes of non-infectious waste, mainly plastic, and 731,000 liters of chemical waste.

Approximately 97% of plastic waste from test kits is incinerated.

Moreover, with over 8 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses shipped and administered in the world, syringes, needles and packaging produced another 144,000 tonnes of medical waste. And figures will keep increasing.

According to the WHO, the report exposes the “urgent need to improve waste management systems”.

3 out of 10 healthcare facilities lack systems to segregate medical waste

As the world was trying to get personal protective equipment, less attention was devoted to sustainability, the report argues. “But it is also vital to ensure that it can be used safely without impacting on the surrounding environment”, said Dr. Michael Ryan, Executive Director at the WHO Health Emergencies Program.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, many facilities considered all of COVID-19 healthcare waste as hazardous, rather than the 10–15% level typically generated from routine health service provision. It led facilities dealing with waste as if it was all infectious.

As a result, the amount of hazardous healthcare waste was 10 times as much as the average volume in an assessment of five Asian cities.

Globally, 3 in 10 healthcare facilities are not equipped to safely bag or store infectious material. In some countries, less than 1 in 3 healthcare facilities have a basic healthcare waste management service. The pandemic only aggravated the issue.

The WHO recommends using eco-friendly packaging and transportation modes, and reusable materials that are also recyclable or biodegradable. It also calls for investing in treatment technologies instead of burning medical waste.

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