It feels a little cynical to come to final conclusions about effects of the global COVID-pandemic while the world is still in the midst of rampant infection waves. For the treatment of health care waste, however, we can at least come to an interim conclusion, because the epidemiological and technological facts are clear.

While the whole world realized with a sigh of relief, that the virus is rarely transmitted via objects – and medical waste is hence less infectious as initially feared, high income countries were confronted primarily with operational problems: Being used to high volumes of HCW and equipped with well-established collection systems, dedicated service providers and an appropriate infrastructure, there was only an increase in volume to manage – especially in hot zones at peaks of infection waves.

Lower income nations – however, were experiencing something new: Waste volumens that were exploding – being on par with high income regions. Countries that normally generate half a kilo of HCW now had to handle waste volumes of up to 8 kg per patient. It is obvious that these volumes cannot be disposed of properly with the existing collection-, handling- and disposal-infrastructure. To help building such an infrastructure and to come up with suitable innovations for those regions has to be one of the main targets in the near future.

However, it cannot be said that developed countries had absolutely nothing to learn. The sudden increase in volume has exposed the vulnerabilities in the material flow of health care waste. Experiencing bottlenecks with external service providers, some health care facilities began to examine (and appreciate) on-site-treatment solutions. With a quite stunning side effect: A study found that using on-site solutions reduced a hospital’s CO2 footprint to one-fifth of its original level and decreased the volume of residual waste left over following on-site treatment to around one fourth compared to incineration.

Innovations, like the one in the field of micro-units for on-site treatment of health care waste, are therefore a growing market. In a couple of years, history books will tell how this global emergency drove the global technological innovation: The story of how it boosted digitization (how many online-meetings did you have today?), how it strengthened the innovation in automation and robotization and how it led to a medical breakthrough that occurs only every few decades (the mRNA technology). Maybe the books will also tell a tale of innovation in the field of waste management. Its up to us to make it happen!

This post, This is the new issue of WMW, was first shared on Waste Management World on September 20, 2021.

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