COVID waste: burn it or dump it?

By Julia R. Arévalo

Madrid, May 6 (efe-epa).- Masks, gloves, and other contaminated garbage from hospitals and households, which have been piling up by the thousands of tons as Spain battled through the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, have undermined recycling chains and overwhelmed the plants that process health-care waste.

Before the pandemic, only 15 percent of hospital waste material around the world was considered dangerous: 10 percent was contagious, and 5 percent was harmful because of its chemical or radioactive properties, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) figures from 2018.

In Spain the most hazardous materials such as cytostatic or cytotoxic medicine was incinerated in specialized plants while the rest was sterilized.

The pandemic has seen an exponential growth in the amount of infectious waste, generated by hospitals and health centers as well as care homes and “medicalized” hotels and homes. In Madrid and Catalonia, the country’s two worst-affected regions, health-care waste has increased by 300 and 350 percent, respectively, according to official data.

The Health Ministry on March 19 called for the incineration of urban waste that might be contagious and set up temporary storage units and cement kilns to help waste management companies deal with the excess rubbish.

But the country only has 11 incineration plants for urban waste; four in Catalonia and only one in Madrid. The former opted for the quick incineration of hospital waste while the latter has let the waste pile up.


Catalonia has three autoclave sanitary waste processing plants (which kill microorganisms using saturated steam under pressure), which were able to absorb an average of 275 tons each month before the outbreak. Between the middle of March and the middle of April, at the height of the pandemic in Spain, waste from COVID-19 rose to 1,200 tons in the region, according to the Catalan Waste Agency (ACR).

“The plants that are authorized to treat the waste are overwhelmed, they cannot cope with such volumes coming from hospitals and hotels converted into clinics. In Catalonia, we discarded storage and have agreed to incinerate the waste at three urban garbage plants,” ACR director Josep María Tost told Efe.

By mid April, this plant had incinerated some 700 tons of COVID-19 waste.

In Madrid region, the three sterilization treatment plants are working at full capacity processing a total of 50 tons per day, leading city officials to authorize the burning of part of the region’s sanitary waste in its only urban incinerator, located 15 kilometers outside the capital.

The Valdmingómez plant’s director, Maria Jose Delgado, told Efe that some 430 tons of COVID-waste had been incinerated up to 29 April.

Madrid has sent part of its health-care waste to plants in other regions in the country as well as to incinerators in France, while six temporary storage units have been set up “to collect the rest of the waste until the emergency is over and it can be treated,” the regional director for Circula Economy, Vicente Galván, told Efe.

Madrid and Catalonia reflect the uneven approaches being applied in Spain’s two most populated regions to deal with the excess contagious COVID-19 waste, which has presented an additional challenge: the new locations where this waste is now being generated.

Teams from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have advised around 350 nursing homes throughout Spain, most with face-to-face visits, on how to handle the contagious medical waste generated by the COVID-19 crisis.

“What we teach them is very basic: first we ask them to locate the area of the center where they can dispose of this kind of waste. Before throwing them into the containers, we recommend that they at least double bag them,” MSF’s emergency coordinator, Montserrat Bartui told Efe.

“And we tell them that whoever is working in the contaminated area should not be the same person who goes to the rubbish container.”

This waste goes into the urban mix container, with the so-called “residual waste”.

The same instruction was given by the Health Ministry to the Spanish households that are home to coronavirus patients or those in quarantine: double bag the contaminated material and place it in the non-recyclable general waste.

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