Vaccine Trash Is Overwhelming the World’s Waste-Management Systems

Image: Cottobro/Pexels

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Single-use plastics are being taxed and phased out across the country, but what do we do about the single-use items we can’t avoid? This is the conundrum facing the country as the vaccine rollout continues and accelerates. With over 230 million doses administered before President Biden’s 100th day in office, millions of plastic syringes have been disposed of, and experts say that the world isn’t prepared for this sudden increase in medical waste.

Why This Matters: The world is facing a plastic pollution crisis. Each year, millions of tons of plastic find their way into landfills and oceans, contaminating groundwater and ecosystems with harmful “forever chemicals” and microplastics. Experts say that the U.S. and many other countries lack the infrastructure to recycle plastic waste properly. But even standard waste-management systems across the world have seen a massive surge since the start of the pandemic. Now, billions of syringes will face those pitfalls, ending up in landfills and unregulated burn pits that pose severe risks to the environment and public health.

Needle in a Haystack: It is a ticking time bomb that will have a terrible impact on people’s health,” said Carlos Filho, head of the Rotterdam-based International Solid Waste Association (ISWA). Across the world, waste management firms and governments are struggling to keep pace with the pandemic.

  • One French waste management company, Suez, said that one of its plants processed three times more medical waste in 2020 than in 2019.
  • One firm in Spain and Portugal left biohazardous waste in boxes that deteriorated and became scattered on public roads.

Studies have shown that salvagers in some nations have taken used syringes from landfills to resell. It’s not just hospitals and clinics overwhelming waste-management systems. Parking lots, sports stadiums, and large outdoor spaces where vaccine centers have been set up produce an unprecedented amount of waste. Additionally, increased disposable mask use by the public and cardboard and paper waste from home deliveries are putting pressure on the system. “An unexpected pandemic showed that the world did not have the necessary infrastructure to cope with an increase in waste,” explained Filho.

But there is still hope that innovation will help the world overcome this crisis. One U.S. firm, OnSite Waste Technologies, has created a desktop device that can melt down syringes into a non-toxic brick of trash that is easier to store or dispose of. Another study showed that using more recyclable materials in syringe production could make future vaccinations far more eco-friendly. But no matter what, this global problem requires a global approach. This year, the United Nations will convene a coalition of interested nations to form a treaty on plastic pollution. Every country must set goals to reduce their plastic pollution in addition to reducing their emissions, or the world will face future health crises even after the pandemic.

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