World’s Pandemic Response Has Generated Massive Volumes of Waste: WHO

  • A new WHO report has warned of the huge amounts of waste generated by the world’s pandemic response.
  • The UN initiative provides a sense of scale as to the magnitude of the problem, said WHO.
  • The avalanche of garbage poses risks to health workers and communities living near landfills.

A United Nations initiative to globally distribute around 87,000 tons of personal protective equipment (PPE) amid the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have generated a massive amount of medical waste, according to a new World Health Organization report released this week.

Most of the PPE  sent out between March 2020 and November 2021 is expected to have ended up as waste, said the WHO in a news release earlier this week.

The estimated amount of waste generated by the initiative offers insight into the scale of the global COVID-19 waste problem, said the report’s authors.

More than 140 million test kits and 193,000 gallons of chemical waste have been shipped around the world throughout the pandemic, according to the WHO. Per its report, the 8 billion or so vaccine doses administered worldwide have produced around 144,000 tons of medical waste.

The WHO noted that countries preoccupied with obtaining PPE also devoted fewer resources towards managing COVID-19 healthcare waste. 

“It is absolutely vital to provide health workers with the right PPE,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, the executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, who was cited in the release. “But it is also vital to ensure that it can be used safely without impacting on the surrounding environment.”

A Reuters report also cited Maggie Montgomery, a WHO technical officer, who said that the misconception regarding the transmissibility of COVID-19 from surfaces had led to the overuse of PPE.

“We’ve all seen photos of the moon suits. We’ve all seen photos of people vaccinating with gloves,” she said, adding: “Certainly across the board… people are wearing excessive PPE.”

According to the WHO, nearly one-third of the world’s healthcare facilities currently struggle with non-COVID-19 waste, a figure that rises to 60% for those in poorer countries. COVID-19 has created additional excess waste that leaves health workers at risk of injury and also negatively affects communities living near landfills.

To tackle these challenges, the report’s authors called for the more sustainable use of PPE — such as gloves and face masks — along with increased investment in waste treatment processes that do not require burning, among other measures.

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