Health and Healthcare Systems

COVID-19 has caused a surge in medical waste. Here’s what needs to be done

A man wearing a blue latex glove holding a mask covered in sand on the beach - and example of medical waste.

COVID has meant a surge in medical waste. Image: UNSPLASH/Brian Yurasits

Kayleigh Bateman
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Health and Healthcare Systems?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Plastic Pollution is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Plastic Pollution

This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare

Listen to the article

  • COVID-19 caused a surge in demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), much of which is made of plastic.
  • Eight billion vaccine doses have generated an additional 144,000 tonnes of waste.
  • The World Health Organization is calling for reforms surrounding the disposal of medical waste.
  • It recommends eco-friendly packaging, reusable PPE and the use of recyclable or biodegradable materials.

COVID-19 has impacted the world in unprecedented ways, and with it has come a surge in volumes of medical waste.

This is creating its own threats to human and environmental health, according to a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) which is calling for changes in the way medical products are made and disposed of.

More than 140 million test kits have been shipped worldwide, creating a potential 2,600 tonnes of general rubbish – most of which will be plastic – and 731,000 litres of chemical waste, the report says.

A chart showing PPE supplies used by healthcare workers each month.
Healthcare workers needed 89 million masks every month in 2020, according to the WHO. Image: Statista

On top of that, more than 8 billion vaccine doses have been administered across the globe, producing an additional 144,000 tonnes of waste, according to the report. This includes glass vials, needles and safety boxes.

"We found that COVID-19 has increased healthcare waste loads in facilities to up to 10 times," WHO Technical Officer Maggie Montgomery told Reuters.

All of this is adding to the 8 million tonnes of plastics entering our ocean every year, and to the estimated 150 million tonnes already circulating.

Misperceptions about protection

A misperception about the transmission of COVID-19 infection from surfaces was the cause for an increase in the production of protective gear, including “moonsuits” and gloves, according to Montgomery.

"We’ve all seen photos of the moonsuits, we've all seen photos of people vaccinating with gloves," she said. "Certainly across the board ... people are wearing excessive PPE [personal protective equipment].”

The WHO analysis is based on an estimated 87,000 tonnes of PPE shipped as part of a UN initiative between March 2020 and November 2021 to support countries urgently in need of such materials. Case studies mentioned in the report include Colombia, the UK, Ghana, India, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Nepal and the Philippines.


However, three in 10 of the world’s healthcare facilities lack systems to segregate waste, while in the least developed countries less than a third of facilities have a basic healthcare waste management service, the report says.

In parts of Nepal, boxes have frequently been left around vaccination sites and openly burned, creating health and environmental risks, the report says. Air pollution and carcinogens from the burning of waste are the biggest risks to communities, according to the WHO’s Montgomery.

In India, volumes of medical waste rose 17% during the first wave of the pandemic, creating waste treatment challenges in rural areas. And in the Philippines, there was a 25% increase in infectious waste levels, with an additional 70 tonnes of waste generated by 51 hospitals, an increase of 12% compared with pre-pandemic times.

Use of PPE in England increased the country’s carbon emissions by 1% between February and August 2020, the WHO's report said. The greatest contribution came from gloves, with the country using 3 billion items of PPE, resulting in 591 tonnes of waste per day.

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

The WHO’s recommendations

In light of its findings, the WHO is calling for reform and a reduction in the use of plastic packaging for medical devices. It is also calling for protective gear to be made from reusable and recyclable materials.

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 our healthcare resources, from cradle to grave,” says WHO Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health, Maria Neira.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

The organization also says there needs to be more investment in the response to future pandemics to ensure that disposal of medical waste is high on the agenda. Its recommendations include eco-friendly packaging, reusable PPE, the use of recyclable or biodegradable materials and investments in non-burnable waste treatments.

A systemic change in how healthcare manages its waste would include greater and systematic scrutiny and better procurement practices,” said Anne Woolridge, Chair of the Health Care Waste Working Group at the International Solid Waste Association.

“There is growing appreciation that health investments must consider environmental and climate implications, as well as a greater awareness of co-benefits of action,” she said. “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 behaviours.”

The World Economic Forum aims to eradicate plastic pollution through initiatives such as the Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP). The GPAP brings together governments, businesses and civil society to bring about action on both global and national levels.

Have you read?
Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Here’s how reducing malaria can add $16 billion to Africa’s GDP every year

Michelle Meineke

June 20, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum