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A Small Dose of Hope to End a Pandemic – Means BIG Headaches for Waste Management

| Angela Naff |

It is a vial of hope for millions and billions of humans that survived 2020 despite quarantine, loss of loved ones, and many other changes to our routines. A vaccine became the shred of light at the end of a long tunnel of uncertainty for many returning to a semblance of life post-pandemic. Of course, as manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies worldwide raced for a cure, the numbers of vaccines needed to cure the globe’s populations were daunting. Along with manufacturing, rollout, and administration rules, some wondered about the waste management headache this unprecedented number of vaccines could produce. In the United States alone, estimates topping 660 million is the expected tally of vaccines needed to inoculate the population? But what happens to the waste those vaccines produce?

Pandemic & Trash Options

It has been estimated that the waste from this single vaccine in syringes here in the US and packaging, if put an end to end, could encircle the globe 1.8 times. That does not include the vials of vaccines, shipping materials, trays to hold them in, and other things to consider during the shipping, storage, and disposal of the used materials. First, most assume that the little red hazardous material boxes on the side of the wall of your doctor’s office – go where?

Wait, as most take their turn in getting vaccinated, probably a small percentage wonder what happens when that needle finishes its life cycle. First, it is important to note that handling human waste and what is considered hazardous is not the same across even the United States; this is determined state by state. Those needles in one state that may require some special disposition may end up in the landfill next to household trash in another state.

If materials are required to be put in hazardous material bins like those you see in a doctor’s office, they must first be sanitized before being allowed to enter a landfill. Autoclaving is the name of this process to sanitize these materials and involve high-pressure steam. Then again, unless the company is doing these services, has direct relationships, or has an alternative disposition plan – into the landfill it all will go. Companies are working on processes to minimize these materials’ footprint by melting and another repurposing of the materials, but it currently accounts for a low percentage of these materials. Boxes, vial containers, and other materials vials come in can be returned to some manufacturers. Pfizer is one such company that requires medical institutions to use their materials to do just that, as they remain as committed to reusable resources as part of their corporate missive.

The waste from not just COVID vaccines but other such medically required materials is a matter that is not being taken lightly. With carbon footprint conversations and pushes happening across many industries, those in the pharmaceutical areas are not being let off the hook. Like so many other topics that the pandemic brought into sharp focus, the waste from vaccines and medical facilities bears further scrutiny as new equipment and inventions are coming out to help the process, repurpose, and minimize these materials’ footprint on our landfills. Unfortunately, these measures may not do much to put a dent in this pandemic’s vaccines, but the future of patch vaccines is one conversation that might significantly reduce this waste and is in the research stages in several places.

Photos by Pexels

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