When the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020, more stress was added to already fragile supply chains in the healthcare industry. Even the most advanced healthcare facilities experienced running out of supplies – primarily personal protective equipment (PPE), to meet the demand surge. Now, even with organizations slowly adjusting to this new normal, many are now struggling to manage the volume of extra medical waste produced in response to the pandemic, giving rise to higher economic and environmental costs.
While managing medical waste is not a new problem, the pressure of the pandemic and the lack of proper handling of extra waste loads have added to this challenge, overwhelming the existing infrastructure. The World Wildlife Fund reports1 that “Even if only 1 percent of masks are disposed of incorrectly, around 10 million masks per month will still end up in our rivers and oceans.” OceanAsia reports that 1.56 billion face masks ended up in oceans in 2020 alone, resulting in an additional 4,680 to 6,240 metric tonnes of plastic pollution.2
Adopting a circular economy – keeping materials and products in circulation for as long as possible, can help reduce waste and lower environmental impacts including climate change. Supply chains play a big role in ensuring that product design, procurement of raw materials, and the manufacturing, distribution, and reverse logistics processes become less resource intensive, and have the ability to re-capture waste to manufacture new materials and products. From procurement and inventory planning to storage and waste management, healthcare leaders have recognized that their supply chain operations were substantially affected by COVID-19. A recent McKinsey survey3 of US health systems executives highlighted that 75% of survey respondents say that moving forward, supply chain needs to assume a more strategic role within the healthcare system.
Dr Mandeep Dhaliwal, Director of HIV Health and Development at UNDP further adds, “Waste management is an integral part of the supply chain, as a result of the use and expiry of health products. Inadequate and inappropriate handling of health-care waste can have serious public health and environmental consequences and can significantly impact on the health of people and planet.”4
In times of crisis, cost and speed can take precedence over environmental impact. While organizations may find it difficult to juggle managing costs and sustainability goals, it doesn’t have to be the case if they are looking at the right places within their supply chain, and efficiently plan for resiliency.
Here are four areas healthcare leaders should take into consideration when it comes to managing waste in a sustainable way:
Organizations should have proper tracking and reporting processes in place, and available to multiple teams for visibility into different areas and facilities. Setting performance goals, measuring and analyzing data will help hold businesses accountable to ESG goals and commitments. This data can be used to understand areas of improvement and as serve as benchmarks supporting the UN Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs).
Operating a centralized command center allows companies to quickly detect, decide, and execute during times of disruption. Data can also be used to continuously improve waste management processes, working towards better performance management and attaining sustainability goals.
Collaborating with suppliers who are reimagining product design and packaging, identifying components that are recyclable, and are invested in manufacturing innovations that support recycling. A new International Finance Corporation (IFC) report entitled “Innovation in PPE Manufacturing: Towards Circularity & Sustainability”5 highlights circular economy approaches in PPE production, such as substituting plastic through product redesign (e.g. using bioplastic), recycling, and automating plastic waste management processes. While current technology and scalability is in the early phase, studies suggest that using biodegradable plastic can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30–70 percent compared with conventional plastics.
While many healthcare organizations are moving away from just-in-time inventory as a consequence of the pandemic years, keeping the right amount of inventory while minimizing waste can still be achieved. Predicting demand and understanding the true capacity to deliver are key to deciding how much inventory to keep and maintain.
Working with multiple suppliers also lowers risk and dependence on a single supplier and the need to keep an excessive amount of inventory. If a healthcare facility requires additional inventory because of a disruption or medical event, it is not at the mercy of one supplier. This lowers storage requirements, and reduces waste by minimizing the need to throw away expired materials.
The WHO indicates that only 15% of the total amount of waste generated by healthcare activities is considered hazardous material, and require special handling.6 This means with proper classification and segregation, 85% of waste materials can potentially be recycled.
Unfortunately, one in three healthcare facilities globally do not safely manage healthcare waste, on top of the added waste loads caused by COVID-19.
Proper waste segregation starts with increasing awareness and prioritization, and this includes conducting training and enforcement, and having the right waste management system in place, including disposal and recycling. Organizations should also ensure that product packaging and shipping materials used in transportation from manufacturer to the healthcare facilities are made with sustainable materials that can also be recycled.
With 91% of business leaders and 86% of employees believing their company has a responsibility to act on ESG issues, and 83% of consumers supporting companies that do so, more and more organizations making the commitment do not just set sustainability goals, but to act on them. 7
Building supply chain resilience will allow healthcare organizations to keep up with the demands of future disruptions in different areas of their supply chain, including waste management. Healthcare organizations need to be able to provide the best patient care, and making sure they are financially healthy while continuing to attain their sustainability goals.
 World Wildlife Fund Italy, Nello smaltimento di mascherine e guanti serve responsibilità, 2020.
 OceanAsia, COVID-19 Facemasks & Marine Plastic Pollution, 2020.
 McKinsey & Company, Optimizing health system supply chain performance, 2022.
 World Health Organization, Tonnes of COVID-19 health care waste expose urgent need to improve waste management systems, 2022.
 International Finance Corporation, Innovation in Manufacturing Personal Protective Equipment: Toward Sustainability and Circularity, 2021.
 World Health Organization, Health-care waste key facts, 2018.