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Reckoning with a Mountain of COVID Waste

Among the silver linings some have looked for during the now more than two-year-old COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s handling of medical waste may not spring to mind. Before the pandemic, US hospitals already generated more than 29 pounds of waste per bed, per day. With a recent WHO report highlighting the example of 95,000 tons of UN-distributed emergency PPE thought to have completed its lifecycle as waste, that number has likely seen an exponential increase, bringing with it severe human and environmental impacts.

But the same report highlights opportunities presented by these shocks to our medical waste system. Around the world, 30% of healthcare facilities do not have systems in place to segregate medical waste, exposing health care workers to needle stick injuries, infection and disease. The incineration of healthcare waste, common in many areas, can result in dangerous emissions that create additional health problems for local communities. Overuse of gloves not only creates more waste, but can result in lackluster adherence to hand hygiene policies, ultimately spreading more disease.

Some countries, and companies, are already rising to this challenge. In the UK, modeling has shown that the environmental cost of PPE could be reduced 75% through a combination of measures, including reducing unnecessary glove use. A 2019 pilot program demonstrated major cost savings from better education around glove use and hand washing as well. Countries including Ghana, Lao PDR, Madagascar and Malawi used the pandemic as an opportunity to increase the amount of medical waste processed using autoclaves, which are more energy efficient and produce fewer pollutants than incinerators.

Corporations have played their part as well. Becton-Dickinson (BD), whose medical segment puts it among the world’s 15 largest medical technology companies, not only produces a wide range of specialty medical waste disposal products, but has long been a pioneer in developing safety syringes, auto-disable syringes, and other products that facilitate injection safety and protect health care workers from accidental needle sticks and subsequent infection. Product impacts are one of the 5 areas of focus in Becton-Dickinson’s 2030 Sustainability goals, which explicitly include chemical elimination/replacement, material reduction, safe product reuse models, closed loop recovery and/or open loop recovery. This level of attention by BD and other large medical technology companies suggests corporations may be well-positioned to help hospitals and health professionals seize newly exposed opportunities for improving global medical waste management.

Of course, the global health industry has other impacts as well. Here again Becton Dickinson’s 2030+ goals are instructive. Among them are science-based targets aligned with 1.5 degree warming; carbon-neutral operations by 2040; measurable annual increases in management diversity; 90% supply chain audit coverage; and TCFD- and SASB-aligned annual sustainability reporting to track progress. BD has also aligned its product offerings with UN and other recommendations for combating the rapidly growing global challenge of antimicrobial resistance.

In the United States, the health care industry not only sends mountains of waste to landfills, particularly in the context of the pandemic; it also contributes approximately 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. Commitments such as those made by BD provide reason for hope that corporations will do their part to address both challenges.