Environmental Impact Of The Covid-19 Pandemic: Addressing The Gaps In Medical Waste Management


"If just 1% of the masks were disposed of incorrectly and dispersed in nature, this would result in as many as 10 million masks per month polluting the environment.”

WWF, 2021

The covid-19 pandemic had a significant impact on most people’s daily life.

Unfortunately, a major environmental crisis has been occurring as a result of incorrectly disposed of medical waste. We have relied on various types of protective products to keep us safe such as face masks, face shields, plastic gloves, plastic barriers, bottles of hand sanitiser and disinfecting wipes.

As the demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) increased so did our need to revert back to disposable single-use plastics in many business settings.

For example, hospitality and business sectors that had previously embraced reusable or biodegradable packaging started using plastic products due to concerns around cross-contamination and consumer demand. This unexpected increase in municipal and medical waste collapsed many waste management facilities unprepared for this global situation.

In this article, we will review the gaps identified in the waste generation problem during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and discuss the challenges and possible alternatives for the future.

Why Is Medical Waste Generation A Global Issue?

In 2020, our health and wellbeing was undoubtedly the primary concern when compared to environmental protection.

Disposable products that significantly increased their demand due to public health directives include:

  • Medical face masks

  • Disposable gloves

  • Protective suits, aprons and visors (PPE)

  • Plastic bags used for hygienic precaution

  • Vaccine containers and needles

  • Transport packaging for medical supplies

  • Medication packaging (e.g. blister packs)

  • Take away food containers

  • Cleaning products & packaging (plastic bottles & aerosols)

  • Bottled water

It is important to remember that these products are now a part of our households and many institutions like hospitals, clinics, laboratories, and quarantine centres, continue to use all of the above.

The problem also comes as many of these products are catalogued as hazardous waste. This means that its improper disposal may cause the disease to spread via secondary transmission.