Tens of thousands of metric tons of extra medical waste as hospitals and clinics scrambled to care for the millions struck with the COVID-19 virus has put tremendous strain on health-care waste management around the world.
The emergency response to this pandemic exposes a dire need to improve waste-management practices, a new World Health Organization report said Tuesday.
That also widens the opportunity for waste-management and recyclable materials companies already logging stronger demand pre-COVID, in part as global spending increasingly targets recycling and sustainability.
“COVID-19 has forced the world to reckon with the gaps and neglected aspects of the waste stream and how we produce, use and discard of our health-care resources, from cradle to grave,” said Dr. Maria Neira, director, environment, climate change and health, at WHO.
The WHO says that over 140 million test kits, with a potential to generate 2,600 metric tons of non-infectious waste, mainly plastic, and 731,000 liters of chemical waste — equivalent to one-third of an Olympic-size swimming pool — have been shipped. Plus, over 8 billion doses of vaccine have been administered globally producing 144,000 metric tons of additional waste in the form of syringes, needles and safety boxes.
Much of the personal protection equipment (PPE) that health-care workers wear has to be thrown away as medical waste. And while it is true that a dip in the number of elective hospital procedures reduced some equipment use, that decline will likely prove temporary. Already more non-emergency appointments have resumed, although that varies by region.
“‘COVID-19 has forced the world to reckon with the gaps and neglected aspects of the waste stream and how we produce, use and discard of our health-care resources, from cradle to grave.’”
— Dr. Maria Neira
The WHO analysis comes at a time when the health sector is under increasing pressure to reduce its carbon footprint and minimize the amount of waste being sent to landfills — in part because of the great concern about the proliferation of plastic waste and its impact on water, food systems and human and ecosystem health.
For now, the need for immediate, disposable and sanitary tests, protective gear, masks and more is first priority, but additional reports show that surge in demand came at a cost, including when personal-use masks are included. The WHO report authors note that their data provides an initial indication of the scale of the COVID-19 waste problem. It does not take into account waste generated by the public.
A recent report published by OceansAsia estimated nearly 1.56 billion face masks entered our oceans in 2020 during the height of the pandemic, although the group’s efforts largely centered around plastic in oceans and focused on Asian regional waste management.
And the World Wildlife Fund has its own concerns about the disposal of single-use masks. “If even just 1% of the masks are disposed of incorrectly, this would result in 10 million masks per month. Doing the math on it, the weight of each mask is about four grams, [the same as] over 88,000 pounds of plastic entering the environment each month,” the group said. For reference, the standard semi-truck and trailer are 80,000 pounds.
Hospital strain remains
The pandemic may show signs of slowing but there’s little indication health facilities are anywhere back to normal. Hospitalizations are down 11% from two weeks ago at 140,440 a day on average. But deaths, which lag cases and hospitalizations, are up 30% at an average of 2,558 a day, close to the peak seen last winter.
On a global basis, the total tally for COVID-19 cases cleared 378 million early this week, and the death toll rose above 5.67 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.
Right now, some 30% of health-care facilities (60% in the least developed countries) are not equipped to handle existing waste loads, let alone the additional COVID-19 load, the WHO said. This potentially exposes health workers to needle stick injuries, burns and pathogenic microorganisms, while also impacting communities living near poorly managed landfills and waste disposal sites through contaminated air from burning waste, poor water quality or disease carrying pests.
Already growing demand
Medical waste was already a booming business before COVID-19, but the surge in coronavirus cases accelerated demand.
The medical waste-management market is poised to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 5.5% from 2021-2026. The growing population across the globe is increasing the number of patients, resulting in the rising volume of medical waste, with Asia-Pacific markets leading, says market-tracker Modor Intelligence. U.S. hospitals alone produce more than 5 million tons of medical waste a year, according to Practice Greenhealth.
While the WHO report stopped short of recommending specifics for a private-sector response, nor did it single out companies, the waste-management stock sector was already coming under more intense interest as government and private spending reroutes to environmental needs.
Some North American-traded stocks that have, or could, benefit from interest in solving the issues the WHO lays out include Waste Management WM, -0.45%, the U.S.’s largest operator in this sector, and a stock that gained 32% over the past year before a 10% pullback to start 2022. WM recently expanded through the acquisition of Advanced Disposal Services.
Stericycle SRCL, +1.04%, Quest Resource Holding Co. QRHC, +5.85%, Sharps Compliance Corp. SMED, +0.15%, as well as exchange-traded fund VanEck Market Vectors Environmental Services EVX, +1.02% all have ties to the medical waste market.
Further, paper, packaging and plastics companies — including traditional paper companies such as International Paper IP, -0.41% and medical packaging concern Amcor AMCR, +1.58% — could choose to expand their foundational product lines and help solve the steps the WHO is advocating.
The WHO says there should be a push toward eco-friendly packaging and shipping, safe and reusable PPE (e.g., gloves and medical masks), recyclable or biodegradable materials; investment in non-burn waste treatment technologies, such as autoclaves; reverse logistics to support centralized treatment and investments in the recycling sector to ensure materials, like plastics, can have a second life.
These changes can only come about with improved funding, the structure of regulation, and multi-national buy-in, the report said.
“There is growing appreciation that health investments must consider environmental and climate implications, as well as a greater awareness of co-benefits of action,” said Dr. Anne Woolridge, chair of the health care waste working group, with trade group the International Solid Waste Association.
“For example, safe and rational use of PPE will not only reduce environmental harm from waste, it will also save money, reduce potential supply shortages and further support infection prevention by changing behaviors,” she said.