GLOBAL – World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that a huge amount of medical waste from coronavirus crisis responses has put tremendous strain on healthcare waste management systems around the world.

Tonnes of personal protective equipment (PPE) procured between March 2020-November 2021 and shipped to support countries’ urgent COVID-19 response needs through United Nations (UN) is expected to have ended up as waste.

Over 140 million test kits with a potential to generate 2,600 tonnes of non-infectious waste and 731,000 litres of chemical waste have been shipped while over 8 billion vaccine doses have been administered globally producing 144,000tonnes of additional waste in the form of syringes, needles and safety boxes.

The WHO Global analysis highlights that the healthcare waste from COVID-19 exposed a dire need to improve waste management practices endangering human and environmental health.

The UN and countries focused on securing and quality-assuring supplies of PPE paying leaving less attention and resources to safely and sustainably manage COVID-19 related healthcare waste.

The Executive Director of WHO Health Emergencies Programme, Dr Michael Ryan emphasized that it was crucial to provide health workers with the right PPE as well as ensuring they are safely used without impacting on surrounding environment.

This can be achieved through having effective management systems in place including guidance for health workers on what to do with PPE and health commodities after they have been used.

“Today, most healthcare facilities are not equipped to handle waste loads exposing health workers to needle stick injuries, burns and pathogenic microorganisms,” Dr Michael observed.

He further added that communities living near poorly managed landfills and waste disposal sites are impacted through contaminated air from burning waste, poor water quality or disease carrying pests.

COVID-19 has forced the world to consider the gaps and neglected aspects of the waste stream as well as how we produce, use and discard of our health care resources from birthing services to disease casualties.

During a recent UN Climate Change Conference, many countries committed to climate-smart health care systems which promote changes in how they manage the health care waste stream, healthy recovery from COVID-19 and preparedness for other health emergencies in the future.

The recent Global report by WHO highlighted recommendations for integrating better environmentally sustainable waste practices into the current COVID-19 response and future pandemic preparedness efforts.

The recommendations for countries include using eco-friendly packaging and shipping, safe and reusable PPE, biodegradable materials, investment in non-burn waste treatment technologies, reverse logistics to support centralized treatment and investments in the recycling sector.

“A systemic change in how health care manages its waste would involves systematic scrutiny and better procurement practices,” said Dr Anne Woolridge, Chair of the Health Care Waste Working Group, International Solid Waste Association (ISWA).

She further added that there was a growing appreciation that health investments must consider environmental and climate implications as well as a greater awareness of co-benefits of action

The analysis comes at a time when the health sector is under increasing pressure to reduce its carbon footprint and minimize the amount of waste being sent to landfill — in part because of the great concern about the proliferation of plastic waste and its impacts on water, food systems and human and ecosystem health.

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