Safe Waste Management Practices During a Pandemic

By:  Melanie Kalmbach

The United Nations Environment Programme International Environmental Technology Centre and the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies recently collaborated to publish a report which analyzes current waste practices, suggests best practices, and provides recommendations for policymakers for managing waste from healthcare facilities, homes, and other locations accommodating individuals with confirmed cases of COVID-19.[1] This blog serves as an overview of the considerations for governmental officials to develop adequate waste management policies and procedures, what individuals can do at home to assist in proper waste management, and the most effective waste management procedures for healthcare facilities.


The five essential areas that policymakers should focus on in order to improve healthcare waste management to prevent the spread of COVID-19 include: (1) source segregation; (2) discharge and collection; (3) transportation; (4) treatment; and, (5) final disposal.  Municipal governments with existing healthcare waste management plans and policies should continue to implement those policies and procedures as well as refining them to better address the increase in potentially hazardous waste due to the pandemic. Government officials should be regularly updating allocation of roles, resources and responsibilities describing the action to be implemented by authorities, healthcare personnel and waste workers as well as developing a contingency plan for use during emergencies, such as a pandemic, addressing alternative solutions for infectious waste, accumulation of waste, washing, disinfection and street cleaning services.

Continued operation of municipal solid waste management is critical in a pandemic as disruption in these services could lead to additional social and public health issues. Municipal solid waste management entities should be properly trained in handling potentially hazardous waste, should be provided with an adequate supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), collection bins, bags and transportation trollies and should collect waste from households with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 separately from other households, if possible.

Further, all potentially hazardous waste should be transported directly to a treatment facility or disposal site and should be properly treated after disposal using an autoclave, incinerator or other proper sterilization process. For final disposal, waste management services should designate specific pits or areas for infectious waste and restrict those areas to unauthorized personnel. For example, Indianapolis’ Conventa incinerator has partnered with retail pharmacy COVID-19 testing sites, such as CVS, to collect their waste and dispose of it to ensure that any trace of the virus is destroyed.[2]

Residential Areas

With the increase in use of PEE combined with more individuals staying at home, there is an expected increase in the amount of waste generated in residential areas. In fact, according to the Indy Star, Marion County’s residential trash services picked up 18% more trash in March 2020 compared to March 2019.[3] Potentially infectious waste generated in homes include masks, gloves, tissues, clothes and medications. So, what can people do at home or in the workplace to improve waste management and prevent the spread of COVID-19? The most effective way individuals can assist in proper waste management is at the source segregation and discharge stages. Below are some suggestions for proper source segregation and discharge of waste in residential areas:

  1. Double bag potentially infectious waste;
  2. Separate hazardous from nonhazardous waste and label them accordingly;
  3. Separate and keep recyclable materials at the source before disposing them;
  4. Destroy disposable PPE (masks) to avoid reuse;
  5. Seal plastic trash bags when they are two thirds full;
  6. Refuse or reduce use of single plastic products and encourage use of cloth masks;
  7. Stop waste picking;
  8. Limit use of open dumpsters/trash receptacles; and
  9. Improve/encourage public awareness and participation.

Healthcare Facilities

Healthcare workers and waste handlers are at the greatest risk of injury and infection from hazardous waste. In order to prevent injury and risk of infection when handling hazardous waste in a healthcare setting, healthcare facilities must establish an effective waste management system. First and foremost, healthcare providers must have the necessary PPE and be trained in the proper use of PPE. When disposing of waste, color-coded containers should be properly labeled according to the waste category in each section of the healthcare facility. Waste bins should be stored and secured in a location away from patients or the public and should be sanitized regularly.  Transporting waste to the designated storage locations should not occur through patient care areas or through other clean/sterilized areas. Moreover, healthcare facilities should schedule waste removal services during a time with the least patient traffic and on a regular basis to prevent waste buildup and decrease waste storage times.

It is critical that government entities, municipalities and healthcare facilities develop or continue to effectively implement adequate waste management policies and procedures in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect the environment.