Healthcare systems across the world are struggling to manage the waste created by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The World Health Organization says the immense amount of extra medical waste created exposes a dire need to improve waste management practices.
A new report from the WHO which focusses on medical waste created directly as a result of coronavirus bases its estimates on the approximately "87,000 thousand tonnes of personal protective equipment or PPE which was procured between March 2020 and November 2021 and shipped to support countries' urgent Covid-19 response needs through a joint UN emergency initiative".
The report authors point out that over 140 million test kits have been shipped, with the potential to create 2,600 tonnes of largely plastic, non-infectious waste and 731,000 litres of chemical waste while over 8 billion doses have produced 144,000 tonnes of additional waste.
The report is one of the first examinations of the amount of medical waste created by the pandemic and the report’s authors note it is "just an initial indication of the scale of the problem".
The speed and urgency with which PPE was required at the same time across the globe led to large scale orders and the WHO says this meant "less attention and resources were devoted to the safe and sustainable management of Covid-19 related health care waste".
Even before the pandemic struck, services in many countries for dealing safely with healthcare waste were lacking. This was particularly the case in least developed countries.
Data from 2019 indicates that 30% of healthcare facilities worldwide did not manage healthcare waste safely. That figure rises to 60% in underdeveloped countries.
The huge increase in waste generated by the pandemic has exacerbated that problem considerably.
Used testing kits, discarded vaccine bottles and used syringes are all among the waste which has now piled up with many items still potentially infectious. That risk of infection, along with the need to protect healthcare workers from injuries from discarded needles, makes it critical to deal with the issue, the WHO says.
The organisation also points to the increased health risks for communities living close to poorly managed landfill sites where much of this waste may end up.
Dr Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme says that while "it is absolutely vital to provide health workers with the right PPE ... it also vital to ensure that it can be used safely without impacting on the surrounding environment".
This means having effective management systems in place, including guidance for health workers on what to do with PPE and health commodities after they have been used.
The WHO wants to see PPE equipment being made from reusable and recyclable equipment, and wants reform and investment in finding ways to reduce the use of packaging and plastic.
The report on medical waste comes ahead of a United Nations meeting later this month to launch talks on a world-first treaty aimed at combatting plastic pollution.
The UN Environment Assembly Summit starts in Nairobi on 28 February with the EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius telling the Reuters news agency that the progressive reduction of fossil-fuel based plastics is crucial to tackling climate change.
Plastics production is becoming a key growth area for the oil industry as countries look to move away from polluting energy sources.
But plastics are building up in the world's oceans, with a study last month by the University of Utrecht revealing traces of nanoplastics in both polar regions for the first time.