WHO report finds tons of hazardous waste linked to COVID-19 — these waste management stocks are poised to profit

Tens of thousands of metric tons of additional medical waste as hospitals and clinics rush to care for the millions of people affected by the COVID-19 virus have strained medical waste management around the world.

It also expands opportunities for waste management and recyclable materials companies that are already seeing stronger demand before COVID, in part as global spending increasingly targets recycling and sustainability.

“COVID-19 has forced the world to consider gaps and overlooked aspects of the waste stream and how we produce, use and dispose of our healthcare resources, from cradle to grave,” said Dr. Maria Neira, Director, Environment, Climate Change and Health, WHO.

The WHO says more than 140 million test kits, with the potential to generate 2,600 tons of non-infectious waste, mostly plastic, and 731,000 liters of chemical waste – the equivalent of a third of a swimming pool Olympic – were shipped . Additionally, more than 8 billion doses of vaccine have been administered worldwide, generating an additional 144,000 tonnes of waste in the form of syringes, needles and safety boxes.

Much of the personal protective equipment (PPE) worn by healthcare workers should be discarded as medical waste. And while it’s true that a drop in the number of elective hospital procedures has reduced the use of some equipment, that drop is likely to prove temporary. Already more non-urgent appointments have resumed, although this varies by region.

“COVID-19 has forced the world to consider the gaps and overlooked aspects of the waste stream and how we produce, use and dispose of our health care resources, from cradle to grave.”


—Dr. Maria Neira

The WHO analysis comes at a time when the health sector is under increasing pressure to reduce its carbon footprint and minimize the amount of waste sent to landfills – in part due to widespread concern over the proliferation of plastic waste and its impact on water, food systems, and human and ecosystem health.

For now, the need for immediate, disposable and sanitary tests, protective equipment, masks and more is the top priority, but additional reports show that the increase in demand comes at a cost, including when the masks for personal use are included. The authors of the WHO report note that their data provide an early indication of the scale of the COVID-19 litter problem. It does not take into account waste generated by the public.

Read: 400 million free N95 masks are starting to arrive in pharmacies – here’s how to extend their use and recycle them

A recent report by OceansAsia estimated that nearly 1.56 billion face masks entered our oceans in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, although the group’s efforts have largely focused on plastic in the oceans and focus on Asian regional waste management.

And the World Wildlife Fund has its own concerns about phasing out single-use masks. “If only 1% of masks are disposed of incorrectly, that would translate to 10 million masks per month. Doing the math, the weight of each mask is about four grams, [the same as] more than 88,000 pounds of plastic enter the environment each month,” the group said. For reference, the standard semi and trailer weigh 80,000 pounds.

The hospital strain remains

The pandemic may be showing signs of slowing down, but there is no indication that healthcare facilities have returned to normal. Hospitalizations are down 11% from two weeks ago to 140,440 per day on average. But deaths, which lag behind cases and hospitalizations, are up 30% to an average of 2,558 a day, close to the peak seen last winter.

Globally, the total number of COVID-19 cases was 378 million at the start of this week, and the death toll exceeded 5.67 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

Currently, around 30% of healthcare facilities (60% in least developed countries) are not equipped to handle existing waste loads, let alone the additional burden of COVID-19, according to WHO . This potentially exposes health workers to needlestick injuries, burns and pathogenic microorganisms, while impacting communities living near poorly managed landfills and waste disposal sites. by air contaminated by burning waste, poor water quality or disease-carrying pests.

An already growing demand

Medical waste was already a booming business before COVID-19, but surging coronavirus cases have accelerated demand.

The medical waste management market is poised to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 5.5% from 2021 to 2026. Growing population across the world is increasing the number of patients resulting in an increase in the volume of medical waste, with Asia-Pacific markets leading, according to market monitoring specialist Modor Intelligence. US hospitals alone produce more than 5 million tons of medical waste annually, according to Practice Greenhealth.

While the WHO report stopped short of recommending details for a private sector response, or targeting businesses, the waste management sector is already attracting more intense interest as public and private spending reorient themselves towards environmental needs.

Some North American-traded stocks that have, or could, benefit from interest in addressing issues raised by the WHO include WM waste management,
-0.45%,
the largest U.S. operator in this sector, and a stock that has gained 32% in the past year before a 10% pullback to start 2022. WM recently expanded through the acquisition of Advanced Disposal Services.

Stericycle SRCL,
+1.04%,
Quest Resource Holding Co. QRHC,
+5.85%,
Sharps Compliance Corp. SMED,
+0.15%,
as well as the listed index fund VanEck Market Vectors Environmental Services EVX,
+1.02%
all have links to the medical waste market.

Additionally, paper, packaging and plastics companies, including traditional paper companies such as International Paper IP,
-0.41%
and medical packaging concern Amcor AMCR,
+1.58%
– could choose to expand their core product lines and help solve the steps advocated by the WHO.

The WHO says there should be a push towards environmentally friendly packaging and shipping, safe and reusable PPE (e.g. gloves and medical masks), recyclable or biodegradable materials; investment in non-incinerable waste treatment technologies, such as autoclaves; reverse logistics to support centralized processing and investments in the recycling sector to ensure that materials, such as plastics, can have a second life.

Read: Better than recycling? These manufacturers participate in a “circular economy”

These changes can only happen with improved funding, regulatory structure and multinational buy-in, according to the report.

“There is a growing awareness that investments in health need to consider environmental and climate implications, as well as greater awareness of the co-benefits of action,” said Dr Anne Woolridge, Chair of the Medical Waste Working Group, with the International Solid Waste Association trade group.

“For example, the safe and rational use of PPE will not only reduce the environmental damage caused by waste, but will also save money, reduce potential supply shortages and further support infection prevention. by changing behaviors,” she said.

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