Face masks, vaccines and testing have become a daily theme for the past two years.
Battling the virus has changed our society and, as a World Health Organization report on Feb. 1 notes, it has also generated an incredible amount of medical waste.
For example, the more than eight billion COVID-19 vaccines distributed worldwide have produced 143 tons of additional medical waste, and the 140 million test kits shipped by the U.N. could “generate 2,600 tons of non-infectious waste (mainly plastic) and 731,000 liters of chemical waste (equivalent to one-third of an Olympic-size swimming pool).”
These numbers do not include the PPE and other supplies that were bought, used and distributed outside of the U.N.’s initiative, and there is no way to calculate the total amount of medical waste that has been produced by non-U.N. entities.
Globally, it is estimated that we are using and discarding over 125 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves each month. The numbers are unimaginable.
The World Health Organization estimates that 30% of health care facilities worldwide were not equipped to handle the volume of medical waste prior to the pandemic. As 20-25% of medical waste is considered infectious or hazardous, this is a problem.
The amount of waste created by the pandemic has become an environmental and public health disaster.
Unprocessed medical waste exposes the general public and health care workers to injury from sharps, hazardous chemicals and biological pathogens. Much of this medical waste is shipped to developing countries that cannot process the growing mountains of COVID-19 waste, so they have resorted to burning medical waste in large pits.
This pollutes the air and water sources, often in heavily populated areas. It also exposes the population to toxins and infectious agents that could propagate diseases and might have the power to generate the next pandemic.
To put all of this in perspective, scan the parking lot next time you go to the grocery store. Count the number of surgical gloves and face masks you see littering the ground from your car to the door. They are everywhere – almost as ubiquitous as cigarette butts.
The United States does have mechanisms to deal with our medical waste, with efficient processing plants to keep sharps and chemicals out of landfills. Even so, we have struggled to process the excess waste created by the pandemic.
The evidence of this is everywhere. Now multiply that challenge by five- or 10-fold for developing countries.
This pandemic has shown the global community the cracks that linger in U.S. society. It has revealed economic inequality, reminded us of racial injustice and, yes, forced us to acknowledge the environmental impact we have on the planet.
Few Americans are aware that experts estimate that 1.56 billion face masks entered our oceans in 2020. This medical waste is in addition to the garbage truck worth of plastic waste that scientists estimate enters the world’s oceans every minute.
The WHO report recommends adopting eco-friendlier packaging, reusable or recyclable PPE, and non-burn waste treatment technologies.
These recommendations seem anemic, as the problem of medical waste management has been with us since before the pandemic, and COVID-19 has propelled the problem into a disaster.
During the early days of the pandemic, Wuhan, China, saw its medical waste jump from 40 tons a day to over 247 tons a day. Other cities in the region, including Manila and Kuala Lumpur, witnessed an 80-90% increase.
Western countries experienced excess waste as well. Many U.S. hospitals saw their medical waste triple or quadruple during the peak of the pandemic.
Processing this additional waste has been hindered by workforce shortages as sanitation employees were quarantined or sick with the coronavirus.
It is time we take action and not just talk about the findings of the WHO report.
Yes, we want health care workers and the public to stay safe and have proper PPE, but we need to become mindful about the products we are consuming in the ongoing fight against COVID-19 and how these supplies are being disposed of.
This will require better guidance from public health leaders. For example, the general public is still unclear as to how long a face mask can be worn before washing or disposing of it.
Industry leaders need to develop medical equipment and supplies that can safely be recycled or destroyed in a nontoxic manner.
Since developing countries rarely have the facilities to safely destroy medical waste, the scientific and manufacturing communities need to work together to develop products that can be more easily recycled or disposed of within the nation where they are used.
Even before the pandemic, developing nations were being overwhelmed with waste from developed countries – including items that technically could be recycled but for which no facilities exist for repurposing them.
So, we need to make the investment in new technologies before we have another public health nightmare resulting in another increase in medical waste.
This is a global problem that demands worldwide cooperation, investment and innovation. Awareness and solutions are long overdue.
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.