Nearly 87,000 tonnes of personal protective equipment (PPE) had been ordered through the UN since the beginning of the pandemic until late last year, and it is estimated most of that has ended up as waste.
The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the accumulation of healthcare waste across the world, especially in least developed countries, further straining under-resourced healthcare facilities, World Health Organization (WHO) report warned.
From discarded syringes to used test kits to old vaccine bottles, tens of thousands of tonnes of extra medical waste have piled up threatening public health and the environment, according to the WHO report titled “Global analysis of health care waste in the context of Covid-19”.
According to the report, globally, 3 out of 10 healthcare facilities lack systems to segregate waste as less than one in three healthcare units in the least developed countries have basic healthcare waste management services.
Climate change is further deepening the challenges faced by many healthcare facilities around the world.
“The increased number and severity of extreme weather events disrupts health services and essential fundamentals for providing these services, including water, sanitation and waste management,” the report said.
At the same time, “the healthcare sector is a substantial contributor to greenhouse gas emissions” which accounts for nearly 4–5 percent of total emissions globally.
"We found that Covid-19 has increased healthcare waste loads in facilities to up to 10 times," Maggie Montgomery, technical officer at WHO, said.
Montgomery added that the biggest risk for affected communities was air pollution caused by burning waste leading to the release of carcinogens.
The WHO estimates that around 87,000 tonnes of personal protective equipment (PPE), equal to the weight of several hundred blue whales, has been ordered via a UN portal since the beginning of the pandemic up until November 2021.
Most of that PPE is thought to have ended up as waste.
Around 2,600 tonnes of mostly plastic trash and chemical waste have been generated from some 140 million test kits. Furthermore, they also include enough chemical waste to fill one-third of an Olympic swimming pool.
On the other hand, the report estimates that some 8 billion vaccine doses administered globally have produced an additional 144,000 tonnes of waste in the form of glass vials, syringes, needles, and safety boxes.
Too many moonsuits
Montgomery said a misperception about the rates of Covid-19 infection from surfaces was to blame for what she called the "overuse" of protective gear, particularly gloves.
"We’ve all seen photos of the moonsuits, we've all seen photos of people vaccinating with gloves," she said.
"Certainly across the board... people are wearing excessive PPE," she added.
Even before the pandemic, around a third of healthcare facilities were not equipped to handle existing waste loads, the WHO said. That was as high as 60 percent in poor countries, it said.
The WHO underlined a problem where Covid-19 healthcare waste was classified as hazardous rather than the 10–15 percent level typically generated from routine health service provision.
Major cities and countries that experienced a large number of Covid positive cases issued guidelines classifying all waste generated by coronavirus patients 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,” the report said.
The WHO also underlined that transmission of the virus mostly is from person to person through exhaled respiratory particles, not fomites.
For example, in New Delhi, where all Covid-19 waste was infectious, waste volumes nearly quadrupled during the peak of the outbreak in May 2021.