Most of New Zealand’s expired COVID-19 supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) and rapid antigen tests (RATs) will be processed into alternative fuels or recycled as part of a disposal solution that balances sustainability, timeliness and cost.

Health New Zealand | Te Whatu Ora confirmed today that New Zealand-based business Enviro NZ, who specialises in resource recovery, recycling and waste management, successfully bid for the work following a highly competitive process involving companies from New Zealand and overseas.  

“We have been carefully exploring a wide range of options for the safe and effective disposal of expired COVID-19 products, including RATs and PPE. We are pleased to have a confirmed plan in place with disposal commencing in mid-July 2024,” said Dr Nick Chamberlain, National Director, National Public Health Service.

Health NZ’s local disposal solution is three-fold, with the intention for the majority of expired supplies to be co-processed alongside wood waste and tyre derived fuel to produce thermal energy as a substitute for coal to make cement clinker. Enviro NZ will lead the process, in partnership with cement manufacturer Golden Bay, to responsibly reduce the environmental impact.

Remaining expired supplies will go through a dual process, starting with tertiary packaging from RATs and PPE stocks to be recycled. This will see storage pallets re-used, shredded into coloured garden/playground decorative woodchip, or shredded and used as a biofuel. Plastic materials will be on sold for further processing into slip sheets, plastic decking or similar.

“Enviro NZ, who has a track record in sustainable landfill management, will then take remaining waste and dispose of it responsibly to reduce the environmental impact.”

“The local facility is operated safely and sustainably to ensure the surrounding land, air and water is protected.”

All disposal methods will be run in parallel to ensure efficiency and completion over an expected four-month period.

“We will be working with Enviro NZ over the course of the disposal process to maximise the proportion of waste disposed of via the alternative fuels and recycling methods.

“Health NZ has made significant efforts to minimise product waste throughout the duration of New Zealand’s public health response to COVID-19. But like many countries, despite our best efforts we have been left holding excess stock that requires disposal,” Dr Chamberlain added.

To provide the best possible protection for New Zealanders and our healthcare workforce during the global pandemic, essential large-scale purchases of RATs and PPE were made by the Ministry of Health and Health NZ for nationwide use.

“The COVID-19 pandemic was a unique situation that required the purchase of large volumes of these products ahead of time to ensure New Zealand was well prepared in the face of significant risk and global uncertainty.”

“This careful preparation ultimately ensured our public health response was highly effective, with New Zealand having one of the lowest COVID-related mortality rates in the world.”

“Surplus or expired supply was always going to be one of the risks that came with needing to purchase and manage large volumes of supplies for a response programme of this scale, to meet unpredictable and significant fluctuations in demand and logistics as the pandemic progressed and was then brought under control.”

To reach a decision on a suitable disposal solution, Health NZ engaged with the domestic and international market to explore possible options, including running a request for proposal (RFP) process. In response, a variety of submissions were received.

“All options were thoroughly considered, including full recycling and innovative ‘new enterprise’ solutions. However, these options were ultimately not as viable as the selected solution due to a range of factors, such as their untested nature, typically higher costs and length of time required to implement.”

“Additionally, some options were not currently available in New Zealand, so would have required further investment in recycling infrastructure locally.”

“In making our decision, we sought to strike a balance between environmental sustainability, timeliness and cost, and we feel we have achieved that with the agreed solution.”