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Table of Contents
Year : 2022  |  Volume : 5  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 7-10

Impact of COVID-19 on global waste and the need for mitigation

Department of Radiodiagnosis and Imaging, Tata Memorial Centre, Homi Bhabha National Institute, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

Date of Submission01-Feb-2022
Date of Decision22-Feb-2022
Date of Acceptance01-Mar-2022
Date of Web Publication31-Mar-2022

Correspondence Address:
Abhishek Mahajan
M.D., Fellowship in Cancer Imaging, MRes (KCL, London), FRCR (UK) Consultant Radiologist, The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre NHS Foundation Trust, Pembroke Place, Liverpool, L7 8YA
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/crst.crst_67_22

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How to cite this article:
Chakrabarty N, Shukla S, Mahajan A. Impact of COVID-19 on global waste and the need for mitigation. Cancer Res Stat Treat 2022;5:7-10

How to cite this URL:
Chakrabarty N, Shukla S, Mahajan A. Impact of COVID-19 on global waste and the need for mitigation. Cancer Res Stat Treat [serial online] 2022 [cited 2022 May 28];5:7-10. Available from: https://www.crstonline.com/text.asp?2022/5/1/7/341234

  Introduction Top

The first case of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) was detected in December 2019, and soon after, on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic.[1],[2],[3],[4],[5] Since then, the entire focus has been on the number of active cases and mortality due to COVID-19, along with the magnitude of the psychological impact of the pandemic on health-care workers.[6] To add to this mayhem, there has also been a steady increase in COVID-19–related waste generated during this pandemic. Since the onset of the pandemic, 1.6 million tons of plastic are produced each day across the world.[7] As per the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 89 million medical masks, 76 million gloves, and 1.6 million medical goggles are required per month during the pandemic.[8] It has been reported that globally, approximately 3.4 billion single-use facemasks/face shields were discarded per day during the COVID-19 pandemic.[7] According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), India generated 45,308 tons of COVID-19 biomedical waste between June 2020 and May 2021. The pandemic has resulted in an approximately 17% increase in biomedical waste production.[9] Research has shown that 8.4 ± 1.4 million tons of plastic waste were produced by 193 countries during the pandemic till August 23, 2021, with hospital waste contributing the lion's share (73%), and the majority of it being from Asia (72%).[10]

COVID-19 vaccination has overwhelmed the already overburdened waste disposal system due to the increased use of disposable syringes, needles, and vials. A study from Vietnam showed that 10.46 g of waste is generated per shot of vaccination.[11] In India, approximately 289 million doses of vaccine were administered between January 2021 and June 2021, each dose generating one syringe as biomedical waste.[12] Based on the type of vaccine, one glass vial of biomedical waste is generated for every 10 or 20 vaccinations.[12]

  Sources of COVID-19 waste Top

Besides hospitals, personal protective equipment (PPE) kits are used in airports, generating approximately 6500 kg of waste daily (which includes PPE kits plus the plastic used to wrap these kits).[13] An online survey showed that surgical, cloth, and N95 masks are used by 40%, 34%, and 9% of the population, respectively, and on an average, one person disposes one mask every day.[14] Use of one surgical mask per person per day generates 124,000, 66,000, and 57,000 tons of unrecyclable plastic waste, contaminated waste, and waste related to plastic packaging, respectively.[14] Because of the imposed lockdown and the newly introduced “work from home” concept, there has also been an increase in the consumption of packaged food; the packaging primarily uses single-use plastic (SUP).[7],[15],[16]

  Composition of COVID-19 biomedical waste Top

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased production and use of PPE, which comprises mask (surgical or N95), gloves, head cover/cap, gown, face shield, medical goggles, and shoe covers.[17],[18] [Figure 1] depicts the various components of a PPE kit. As shown in [Table 1], most of the components of a PPE kit are made from various types of plastic, which are non-biodegradable. Besides the PPE kit, hand sanitizer bottles and vaccination-related waste also contribute to the pool of COVID-19–related biomedical waste. Hand sanitizer bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a type of plastic.[19] Disposable syringes, needles, and vials for vaccination are made from plastic, stainless steel, and glass, respectively.[20],[21],[22]
Figure 1: Components of the PPE kit (PPE = personal protective equipment)

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Table 1: Composition and biodegradability of PPE

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  Problems associated with COVID-19–related waste disposal Top

Ideally, on-site segregation of waste should be done into color-coded bins lined with double-layered waste disposal bags. A 1% sodium hypochlorite solution should be used to coat the inner and outer surfaces of the bins used for COVID-19 waste disposal.[38] Additionally, treatment of soiled PPE kits with 10% lime slurry has been recommended by WHO.[39] However, the avalanche of COVID-19 cases coupled with a poor waste disposal system has adversely affected the marine life and also led to increased greenhouse gas emissions.[10],[14] Lack of proper waste segregation at source, incineration of COVID-19–related plastic waste, and waste released into the oceans, which have affected the marine life are some of the major problems associated with waste disposal. Degradation of PPE kits leads to the formation of microplastic and microfibers, which take many years to decompose and are harmful to the environment.[40]

  Potential solutions to the COVID-19 waste management crisis Top

Many strategies have been devised to tackle the enormous plastic waste which forms the major bulk of COVID-19–related waste. There have been suggestions for converting this waste into bioenergy or compost.[41] The ash produced by incineration could also be used in cement.[41] There has been news about making brick walls from used PPE kits in India using 52% shredded PPE material, 45% paper sludge, and 3% binding agent-formulated gum base.[41],[42],[43] The banana tree fiber, abaca, which is durable and decomposes within 2 months, has been used to prepare masks in the Philippines.[44] Similarly, alternative materials can be used to prepare PPE kits to reduce the plastic footprint.

  Recommendations Top

Decreasing the amount of COVID-19–related waste generation is currently the best way to tackle the problem of the COVID-19–induced increasing plastic footprint. For instance, limited reuse of N95 masks by health-care workers on a rotation basis can reduce the number of masks being used.[45],[46] The N95 masks should be allowed to dry for at last 72h, stored in paper bags and decontaminated before reuse.[45] Avoiding indiscriminate use of PPE kits and restricting their use to health-care workers directly handling COVID-19–positive patients can help lessen the burden on the waste disposal system. Since the onset of the pandemic, health-care expenditures have increased due to the sudden surge in the demand for PPE. Therefore, judicious use of PPE will not only help to reduce the plastic footprint, but also lessen the expenditure.[47]

  Conclusion Top

Accepting the fact that the pandemic has jeopardized the waste management capacity and finding alternative solutions to plastic are the only ways to tackle the problem of waste disposal in future. Conversion of the waste into fuel, compost, or cement could further help reduce the plastic footprint. Meanwhile, judicious use of PPE is warranted to handle the current situation of COVID-19-related increase in the plastic footprint.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

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