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Global Covid response generating masses of waste, WHO says

Image source, Getty Images

The amount of waste being generated by the Covid-19 pandemic is a threat to the environment and human health, the World Health Organization (WHO) says.

The agency said used medical equipment such as needles posed a health hazard, while the increase in plastic waste was straining waste management systems.

In its report, the WHO called on manufacturers to use more biodegradable materials and eco-friendly packaging.

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It also said there was a “dire need” to reform how waste is disposed globally.

The materials being discarded include protective clothing, syringes, gloves, face masks and test kits.

“It is absolutely vital to provide health workers with the right PPE,” WHO Emergencies Director Michael Ryan said after the report was released on Tuesday. “But it is also vital to ensure that it can be used safely without impacting on the surrounding environment.”

The agency’s 71-page report found that most of the 1.5 billion medical items distributed by the UN in the first months of the pandemic ended up as rubbish, equivalent to the weight of 262,000 jumbo jets.

Disposable gloves contributed to more waste than any other item procured through the UN’s system, the report said.

The WHO’s own guidance does not recommend that healthcare workers be required to wear gloves while administering the Covid-19 vaccine, despite it being common practice in many places.

In one study cited by the report, it was estimated that 3.4 billion single-use masks were discarded every day in 2020 around the world.

Because most masks are made from plastic, the waste can end up polluting both land and water, especially in countries with less developed refuse management systems.

And more than half of healthcare facilities in poorer countries aren’t able to deal with the waste safely, the WHO found.

The first eight billion Covid vaccines administered globally generated 144,000 tonnes of waste in the form of syringes and needles, which can cause injuries to health workers if they are disposed of carelessly.

The report also highlighted creative ways for sustainably reusing medical waste. In one Australian example, researchers used discarded face masks as material for road construction by shredding them and drying them at high temperatures.

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