The COVID-19 pandemic is also having a huge environmental impact, with an exorbitant volume of waste. According to a report recently published by the World Health Organization (WHO), since the crisis caused by the coronavirus began, throughout the planet 1.6 million tons of sanitary waste are generated every day, which are added to the usual huge amount of waste derived from human activity.
In general terms, the pandemic has doubled the volume of plastic waste, most of which come from single-use products, such as antigen tests or masks. It is the latter that are causing the greatest environmental problems, since they represent one of the essential elements in the fight against the virus, and they also have a very short useful life, so the volume generated is enormous.
According to the latest estimates, about 129 billion masks per month Worldwide. “You have to think that a surgical mask, which is the one used daily by most of the population, is a product that cannot be recycled, and it can take more than 100 years to decompose if it reaches nature. They generate a large impact and we are using them massively”, he told RTVE.es Luis Suarezspokesperson for the environmental organization WWF.
In recent months, the presence of masks lying on the ground has become a common sight, especially in urban areas. However, the real impact is not so much in the cities, where sooner or later most of this waste will be removed, but in other more vulnerable spaces. “If only a small fraction of those amounts reaches the sea, which is where all that pollution ends up concentrating, then the impact is even greater than what we already have. We are punishing the seas in a dramatic way. There is an estimate that speaks of an average of 100 million tons of plastics per year that are dumped into the oceanand many of these plastics are single-use, disposable products,” says Suárez.
In the case of antigen test, of which millions of units have been sold in Spain alone in recent weeks, there is an added problem. Once used, they can be contaminated by COVID-19, which is why they are considered special waste, and cannot be deposited in the SIGRE Points of pharmacies, the small container where it is possible to take expired medicines to prevent them from contaminating the environment. Where then do these single-use devices that cannot be recycled end up? In the organic garbage bag, so its final destination is landfills or incinerators.
Problems with waste management
But masks and antigen tests are not the only visible remains of the passage of the virus, since to these elements must be added others that have been widely used in the last two years, such as hydroalcoholic gels, gloves, gowns, vaccine vials, syringes… Many of them have been restricted to the health field, and at least there are protocols for their collection and treatment. However, according to the WHO, 30% of health centers (60% in least developed countries) are not equipped to manage regular waste, and the pandemic has only exacerbated this lack.
According to the international organization, this poorly managed waste also affects health, because it exposes health workers to possible injuries from needle sticks, burns and harmful microorganisms, while also having an impact on people living near landfills and improper waste disposal sites due to air pollution, poor water quality, or disease-carrying pests.
The waste generated by massive COVID vaccination campaigns they also represent a serious problem that has grown explosively in the last year. The report published by the WHO calculates that the 8,000 million doses administered up to that moment had generated 143 million tons of waste, mainly remains of vials and syringes. It is to be hoped that now that more than 10,000 million doses have been administered, the figure has increased proportionally.
Manage the flow of healthcare waste
The World Health Organization warns of the potential danger of this waste for the health of the planet, and urges to establish an adequate flow in the production, use and disposal of health resources, to minimize an environmental impact that will last for several decades. If in the early stages of the pandemic dumping and incineration was the main destination of this type of waste, the need for a circular management model in which reuse prevails, with the use of recyclable materials or biodegradable, and the use of sterilizing techniques such as the autoclave.
But, ultimately, citizens must be an active part in this process. WWF spokesman, Luis Suarezappeals to individual commitment to face such a challenge. “The first step would be responsible use, a choice of products that are reusable as far as possible, for example, trying to use masks that with all the proper health safety features can be reused several times,” he points out, at the same time. that affects taking care of “the treatment we do with these masks and other single-use products when it comes to disposing of them, throwing them in the appropriate container and not in any way”.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.