As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through country after country, it leaves behind piles of discarded medical masks, gloves and gowns.

In Wuhan, China, where the virus originated, the local government had to build a new medical waste treatment plant to handle the sudden flood of potentially contaminated gear from hospitals. And in France, one plant had to start running 24 hours per day.

But Ontario seems to have avoided that problem. At a major network of hospitals in Toronto, the epicentre of Ontario’s outbreak, the overall flow of garbage hasn’t gone up even though more personal protective equipment (PPE) is going into the trash, said Edward Rubinstein, director of environmental compliance, energy and sustainability at the University Health Network (UHN).

“A lot of our garbage is probably not happening these days,” he said.

A large part of that is likely due to Ontario’s pause on elective surgeries, Rubenstein added. In the U.S., operating rooms tend to produce a third of overall hospital waste and two-thirds of those facilities’ biohazardous waste, like human blood and bodily fluids, according to the health-care sustainability organization Practice Greenhealth.

Hospitals like those in the University Health Network ⁠— which includes the Toronto General and Toronto Western hospitals ⁠— are also doing more virtual care during the pandemic, which also lessens the strain on garbage disposal.

COVID-19 also hasn’t changed the way hospitals process medical waste ⁠— the Public Health Agency of Canada, for example, recommends “routine practices.” In Ontario, that means the discarded items are either incinerated or disinfected, then disposed of in a landfill.

“You treat everything like it’s potentially infectious, Rubinstein said. “Even before COVID-19 … we don’t want to spread infections in the hospital.”

Stericycle Canada, a company that processes medical waste, says it has seen an increase in demand, but nothing that would interrupt its services.

“There has also been some increase in biomedical waste generation due to pop-up sites for testing and/or treatment,” wrote Selin Hoboy, vice-president of government affairs and compliance at Stericycle, in an emailed statement.

“However, we are also seeing declines in biomedical waste from non-critical or elective surgeries and the temporary closures of smaller health-care practices.”

COVID-19 is causing more discarded gloves and masks to end up in the trash. But with so much of the province shut down, overall waste levels haven’t gone up in Toronto like they did in Wuhan and France.

Overall waste levels down during pandemic

A similar phenomenon appears to be happening with household waste as well.

The City of Toronto ⁠— which manages waste collection for municipal facilities, most residences and some other small businesses or organizations like churches ⁠— has reported more garbage going out to the curb on collection day because more people are home. But overall, it says, waste levels are 17 per cent lower compared to last year. (The city doesn’t collect trash from hospitals or large institutions.)

“One point to note is that collection from schools, city buildings, and small commercial businesses including restaurants is not taking place to the same extent at this time due to emergency measures put in place as part of the COVID-19 response,” wrote Carlyle Khan, Toronto’s acting deputy general manager of solid waste management services, in an email.

Though Toronto is asking residents to bag up PPE and personal hygiene products when throwing them out at home, that’s a “precaution,” Khan added.

'Hopefully, this will inspire people to be a lot more innovative'

Rubenstein said COVID-19 has highlighted how much the medical system relies on single-use products, and the challenges that can come with that. For months, face masks and other PPE have been in short supply and jurisdictions around the world are scrambling to get enough gear to protect their medical workers.

“There’s always been a lot of single-use items in health care,” he said. “COVID-19 has highlighted some of the supply-chain issues, especially when you’re relying on disposables.”

But that challenge also creates an opportunity for innovation, he said. Researchers are now looking at how to sanitize and reuse N95 respirators, for example, which offer the most protection from the virus. And once the pandemic is over, Rubenstein added, we will still have to grapple with the climate crisis and other environmental impacts.

“Hopefully, this will inspire people to be a lot more innovative,” he said.