Person carrying a bag of medical waste

Pandemic medical waste poses global health risk

WHO calls for world-wide shake-up in dealing with increased medical waste
03 March 2022 , By Katie Coyne

Around three billion people globally lack a managed waste disposal site, increasing the risk of health problems, while emissions are also contributing to climate change

COVID-19 has created huge amounts of extra medical waste globally including 140 million test kits, 731,000 litres of chemical waste, and 144,000 tonnes of waste from eight billion vaccinations, according to a World Health Organisation report.

Yet 30% of healthcare facilities – and 60% in the least developed countries – are already struggling to deal with pre-pandemic levels of medical waste.

Lack of equipment and capacity combined with the huge rise in quantities of waste is potentially exposing health workers to needle stick injuries, chemical burns and pathogenic microorganisms. Communities living close to poorly managed waste sites are also affected through contaminated air, poor water quality or disease carrying pests.

WHO is calling for “significant change” in the way medical waste is dealt with “from cradle to grave” and has made a number of recommendations including eco-friendly packaging, reusable PPE, use of recyclable or biodegradable materials, as well as investment in the recycling sector, and in non-burn treatment techniques.

Burning dumpsites cause significant health problems, affecting every system of the human body - respiratory, nervous, digestive etc - and has particularly severe impacts on childhood development

Zoë Lenkiewicz, Senior Technical Advisor and Head of Communications at international waste management NGO, WasteAid said, at a “conservative estimate”, around three billion people globally lack a proper, managed waste disposal site.

She added: “Where medical waste disposal facilities are inadequate or absent, medical waste is often disposed of at the same dumpsites as normal household waste. If the dumpsite is not managed, vulnerable people - including children - may be scavenging through the waste to find items of value, putting them at significant risk of contracting disease, via sharps, vermin, or respiratory pathways.

“Most dumpsites and incidences of open burning take place very close to where people are living, often in people's own backyards, so there is no protection from the emissions.”

Burning dumpsites cause significant health problems, said Lenkiewicz, affecting every system of the human body - respiratory, nervous, digestive etc - and has particularly severe impacts on childhood development.

She added: “The cocktail of emissions also contributes to climate change, via black carbon - soot, which specifically causes melting of the ice caps - and a wide range of gases that have long-term climate impacts. Due to the lack of waste data in lower- and middle-income countries, the absence of comprehensive waste management systems, and lack of global attention to waste, the true scale of the impact is as yet not known.”

A huge component of medical waste is polypropylene (PP). A large UK hospital may produce between 50 and 100 tonnes of PP each year comprising items such as face masks, gowns, surgical tray wraps, and bed curtains.

Cardiff-based Thermal Compaction Group (TCG) is one company offering a solution. It provides machines for hospitals and NHS Trusts that can sterilise and melt down waste PP into a solid block. This saves space on site and reduces carbon from transport miles, due to less frequent collections. The blocks are recycled into PP granules where they are sold to injection moulders and re-used.  Mat Rapson, Managing Director, TCG said: “While a product may be single use, what that product is made from isn’t single use.”

“Dirtier” grade medical waste, and those using a mix of plastics, will need different approaches.


Image credit: Shutterstock

Luminous cubes

CIEH Leadership Programme

Take your career to the next level with the CIEH Leadership Programme.

Find out more