Amplified Medical Waste in the Times of Corona

by Selva Ozelli

The global coronavirus pandemic, which the World Health Organization (WHO) declared in March 2020 ,continues to rapidly spread across the world. Johns Hopkins University reported that the latest number of COVID-19 cases globally is more than 108 million, with global deaths of  2.4 million (as of Feb 15, 2021, Johns Hopkins University and Medicine).  While protecting lives and recovery of livelihoods are at the core of national and local policies and actions, proper management of waste stemming from this pandemic – such as the use of single use disposable medical masks, gloves, containers– is an essential civic service to minimize possible secondary impacts upon health and the environment.

During the pandemic, single use personal protective equipment (PPE) has driven increased plastic pollution. The WHO has reported a 40% escalation of disposable PPE production. If the global population adheres to a standard of one disposable face mask per day after the lockdowns end, the pandemic could result in a monthly global consumption and waste of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves, according to a study titled “Face mask and medical waste disposal during the novel COVID-19 pandemic in Asia.”

“Globally, the impending surge in the waste volume has already threatened the existing waste management infrastructures and proved to be incapable ofdealing with this sudden surge,” wrote several scholars in the Journal of Environmental Chemical Engineering in November.   

Many are wondering where the pandemic related medical waste ultimately ends up. Heaps of disposable face masks and gloves used to protect against the novel coronavirus have been dumped into rivers and oceans around the world, causing serious damage to fisheries and ecosystems, according to the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development report.

A recent CDC study finds two masks are better than one vs. COVID-19. This finding is likely to make pandemic related medical waste twice as bad.  Accordingly, to address this problem, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) will hold a conference on single-use plastic products pollution with a life cycle approach on  Feb 19, 2021.

Waste Management during the COVID-19 Pandemic From Response to Recovery

In a report titled “Waste Management during the COVID-19 Pandemic From Response to Recovery”, UNEP provides practical information, suggestions, and guidelines on Healthcare Waste Management  and Municipal Solid Waste Management, given the restrictions and limitations imposed by the ongoing pandemic.

“We hope that this publication, with its combined ‘desk review’ of international guidelines alongside country level ‘facts on the ground’ survey responses, will provide some guidance and practices for municipalities, particularly in developing countries, as they deal with urgent concerns, and building more resilient cities for tomorrow” explained  Mr. Keith Alverson, Director of UNEP-IETC.  Mr. Kazunobu Onogawa, Director of IGES Centre Collaborating with UNEP on Environmental Technologies, added, “COVID-19 has had a serious impact on all parts of our society, and waste management is no exception. Waste management in developing countries is usually not operated in accordance with international standards, and so there have been additional difficulties with an increased amount of potentially infected waste which requires additional, careful handling and treatment processes”.

Case Study Sri Lanka

The UNEP study found that the Government of Sri Lanka formulated an Interim guideline for management of solid waste generated by households and places under self-quarantine due to COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020 for local authorities in Sri Lanka. 

During March 4 -5, Sri Lanka’s International Institute of Knowledge Management will hold an International Waste Management Conference.

Case Study Brazil

According to another study assessing the environmental impacts caused by shifts on solid waste production and management due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil, 30 cities, representing a population of more than 53.8 million people (25.4% of the Brazilian population), was evaluated. Unexpectedly, the study found that solid waste production in the main cities in Brazil decreased during the social isolation period, possibly because of reduced activity in commercial areas, but more than 35% of the medical waste had not been treated properly. Furthermore, improper disposal of face masks was reported in several cities, which may have increased the risk of the spread of COVID-19.

Global Case Study on Air Quality and Waste

Another study explored the overall positive and negative environmental impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The study found that the pandemic lockdown significantly improved air quality in different cities across the world, by reducing GHGs emission, lessening water pollution and noise, and reducing the pressure on the tourist destinations, which assisted with the restoration of the ecological systems.  Some negative consequences of the pandemic that the study pointed out were increased medical waste, haphazard use and disposal of disinfectants, mask, and gloves; and the burden of untreated wastes continuously endangering the environment.

Selva Ozelli Esq, CPA is an environmentalist who expresses this sentiment as an artist, writer, international tax attorney who frequently writes about environmental issues for Cointelegraph, Bloomberg BNA, TiredEarth, Times of Corona, TRVST, OECD, World Bank, UN-FAO, UN-SDG and other publications.


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