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Hazardous material: Dealing with the vast medical waste of the Covid-19 pandemic

A discarded face mask on a street in of Douala, Cameroon, on April 24, 2020.
A discarded face mask on a street in of Douala, Cameroon, on April 24, 2020. © AFP / FRANCE 24

Across the world authorities have been scrambling to supply health workers with equipment needed to treat the surge of Covid-19 patients. But a new problem is emerging: How to deal with the vast amounts of medical waste the pandemic is creating, including the masks, gloves, gowns and other protective gear used by doctors and nurses, all of which could be contaminated by the virus.

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One processing plant in Vandoeuvre-lés-Nancy in eastern France has had to double its capacity to cope with the influx of infectious waste.

"We had to implement a number of important measures, such as almost doubling our mechanical treatment capacity, doubling our teams in place in order to ensure all the treatment. And also, working seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” Joël Keller, director of treatment at the plant, told AFP.

Once delivered from hospitals across the country the waste is incinerated at temperatures of 1100°C.

But not all medical waste is treated so carefully.

Photos published by news agency Reuters earlier this month appeared to show medical workers at a New York hospital disposing of equipment in a public bin on a street, moments after transferring bodies to a refrigerated truck.

It is not just hospitals using vast amounts of protective equipment. Public demand for face masks and disposable gloves has also skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic.

In the city of Douala in Cameroon, one of the countries to have made the wearing of face masks in public compulsory, residents say discarded masks are now becoming a health hazard.

"As you're walking, if you walk down the whole street, frankly, you're going to see one or two masks on the ground, and there are some people who take these masks and just put them straight on. And that's not good,” Douala resident Martin Penda told AFP.

“The government really needs to find the means and strategies to deal with this."

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