Feb 1, 2022 - Energy & Environment

WHO warns of pandemic's "large increases" in health care waste

A medical wastebin filled with used syringes at a coronavirus vaccination site in San Antonio in March 2021.
A medical waste bin filled with used syringes at a coronavirus vaccination site in San Antonio in March 2021. Photo: Sergio Flores/Getty Images

The World Health Organization warned in a report Monday that the coronavirus pandemic has led to "large increases" in health care waste in the form of personal protection and other equipment, including masks, gloves and vaccination syringes.

Why it matters: The WHO said the glut of waste is further burdening disposal systems that were already strained before the pandemic, contributing to pollution and increasing the likelihood of injury to health care workers through needles, burns and pathogenic microorganisms.

By the numbers: Based on the latest available data from 2019, the WHO said that one in three health care facilities around the world did not safely manage health care waste.

  • It said that 87,000 metric tons of personal protection equipment, equivalent to 261,747 airplanes, had been shipped around the world in response to the pandemic as of November 2021.
  • Only 5 million biohazard bags, capable of handling 61,000 metric tons of waste, have been requested, meaning a potential 26,000 metric tons of waste that cannot be safely stored, according to the WHO.
  • It added that global vaccination efforts with doses already shipped around the world are estimated to generate 143 metric tons of additional waste, comprising of 87 metric tons of glass vials and 48 metric tons of syringes.

What they're saying: "The COVID-19 pandemic has led to large increases in health care waste, straining under-resourced health care facilities and exacerbating environmental impacts from solid waste," the WHO said.

  • "Furthermore, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, plastic production has more than doubled, raising concerns about both the short-term impacts on fresh water, oceans and air quality (from burning), and the longer-term impacts of persistent nano-plastic particles," it added.

The big picture: A recent study published in the scientific journal PNAS in November estimated that over 25,000 tons (about 22,680 metric tons) of pandemic-related plastic waste pollute the oceans, contributing to threats to marine life and ecosystems.

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