The world will be drowning in medical waste in 2020 due to the 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19), and the repercussions of this glut will have a profound impact on sustainable medical waste management practices for years to come. Furthermore, medical waste management companies need to be ready to assist cities and countries worldwide as they seek to manage the volumes of infectious material. The critical need for better management of medical waste is a global challenge that is positioned at the confluence of Frost & Sullivan’s strategic research themes: Sustainability and the Circular Economy, Risk and Resilience, and Digitalization. Demand for medical waste management will be apparent in the number of treatment and storage facilities required and the ability to scale capacity up and down effectively, in addition to policy, regulation, enforcement, and broad public awareness.
The Impact on Wuhan and China
The South China Morning Post reports Wuhan’s medical waste tonnage grew from a typical 40-ton per day volume to 240 tons, which is a six-fold increase. To deal with this influx, the city required an injection of mobile treatment units, a new 30-ton capacity treatment plant, and access to treatment facilities outside the region. Wuhan’s experience is not unique in China, with the Post citing a Ministry of Ecology and Environment report of 20 cities in China struggling to cope and a further 28 at capacity for medical waste. The rest of the world should not see this as a localized anomaly but instead as the start of a global realignment of needs and the demand for medical waste management.
To scale up Wuhan’s experience using the United States as an example, US hospitals produce 5 million tons of hospital waste per year, according to Practice Greenhealth. This amount spread evenly over the year equals 416.7 thousand tons per month, and an increase in demand, such as in Wuhan, would produce a monthly volume of 2.5 million tons of medical waste in the United States. Under these conditions, the United States could generate an entire year’s worth of medical waste in two months because of the impact of COVID-19. While there has been notable reuse of single-use personal protection equipment that can reduce the amount of medical waste produced, this is unlikely to have a dramatic impact on the generation of medical waste. Continued innovation, however, may play a more prominent role in the future to offset and decrease medical waste volumes. Examples of recent innovation can be seen through the recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of the Critical Care Decontamination System™ manufactured by Battelle Memorial Institute and in Duke Health’s recycling of N95 masks using vaporized hydrogen peroxide. What remains true is that the more intense the impact and the longer COVID-19 is felt around the world, the greater the generation of medical waste and burden felt by existing waste management infrastructure. Decision-makers must be proactive in the face of medical waste management challenges and make overcoming them a central part of their COVID-19 management strategies.
Each country’s ability to manage this medical waste crisis, however, is influenced by several factors, including policymaking and enforcement, existing collection, transportation, management facilities, dominant medical waste treatment methods, and existing excess capacity, among others. As a result, the reality on the ground will vary markedly between countries. Policy will be critical for managing the crisis, which is true both in terms of managing waste infrastructure and enforcing sanitation practices.
The Global Medical Waste Management Market
Concerning the global market for medical waste management, there will be a strong demand in the coming months and years for additional facility capacity and for advanced solutions that deliver improved efficiency and better RoI. Principal methods for medical waste treatment include incineration, autoclaving, and chemical treatment. While some waste materials must be incinerated, many countries in Europe and North America have moved towards autoclaving and chemical treatment methods as more sustainable and safer methods of disposal. The open incineration of medical waste can lead to the generation and release of harmful gases, such as dioxins and furans, which should be avoided. Incineration will continue to be adopted in regions with less stringent regulation or enforcement, but many countries will continue, and move to, investing in safer treatment methods, such as autoclaving.
In addition, some emerging areas of likely investment will look to disrupt traditional practices in medical waste management. Waste materials and volumes can be tracked by radio-frequency identification (RFID) to ensure safe management and disposal, as opposed to illegal and unintended dumping. Volumes of medical waste in hospital waste bins can be tracked to optimize timely collection and transportation. Mobile medical waste treatment units could be designated as equipment included in national emergency stockpiles. While COVID-19 and the scale of its impact is unusually virulent, there have been several contagious diseases of concern in recent decades that would warrant a reevaluation of necessary materials and equipment by nations. These diseases include the SARS coronavirus in 2002, the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in 2012. Additionally, micro-management strategies towards the collection of community waste should be considered because it presents a logistical and practical challenge. The South China Morning Post quoted an official from Wuhan’s Economic Development Zone that stated approximately 440 pounds of discarded masks were collected from over 200 public bins stationed across the city. Medical waste is not something generated solely at hospitals and clinics but indeed by the general population in their residences and public spaces.
The impact of COVID-19 on medical waste management will be deep and broad. Wuhan’s monthly generation of medical waste during the pandemic grew six times larger than normal and should be the canary in a coal mine for cities and countries worldwide. To deal with such a large global influx of waste, the market will need to respond by delivering an increase in conventional management facility capacities and will need to look to less conventional mobile units and RFID tracking technology to ensure sustainable medical waste management. This current and upcoming demand represents a huge market demand that medical waste management companies need to be ready to serve. Addressing this demand will take a determined and sustained effort to manage supply chains and distribution channels and provide clear and transparent marketing and communications as well as a strategic approach to customers and geographic engagement to maximize the global market impact.