World Environment Day: PPE, masks and shields… pandemic litter adds to waste crisis

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The plastic and biomedical waste crisis is getting worse with every Covid case as millions of people use and throw away face shields, surgical masks, gloves and PPE suits, once used mainly in hospitals and now essential to the everyday life.

The anti-plastic movement has taken a hit in the pandemic with rising reliance on single-use plastic and households contributing to the tonnes of biomedical waste generated, worried experts said ahead of World Environment Day on Saturday.

The litter of the pandemic is visible everywhere – PPE suits thrown behind hospitals and crematoriums, surgical masks and shields thrown away with household trash and, of course, bottles of disinfectant, gloves and the like found in the dumps of the street corners.

With less than perfect waste disposal mechanisms in India and the “plastic footprint” getting bigger day by day, worries about plastic waste suffocating the planet and worries about safety are growing.

“There has been a general increase and as this is a crisis situation, we are not thinking about plastic but about general prevention. The focus is no longer on plastic, so it is a problem,” Ravi Agarwal, founding director of environmental NGO Toxics Link, told.

“A lot of biomedical waste like masks and PPE kits are also being generated in general houses now. So that becomes a big problem. These things end up in ecosystems. A lot of these things like masks can be seen on the beaches, in coral reefs, etc.,” he added.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), India generated 45,308 tons of COVID-19 biomedical waste between June 2020 and May 10, 2021, representing an average daily generation of 132 tons of COVID-19 related waste.

This is in addition to the 615 tons of biomedical waste generated per day before COVID-19, which represents a 17% increase in biomedical waste generation due to the pandemic alone.

In addition to Covid-related waste from hospitals and homes with positive patients, there is “pandemic-promoted” waste from non-Covid homes, including not only protective equipment but also plastic packaging with more in addition to people using home deliveries for essential and non-essential purchases. .

Under current waste disposal rules, biomedical waste is separated into four categories – Yellow (highly infectious waste such as human, animal, anatomical, soiled), Red (contaminated recyclable waste generated from disposable items such as tubes , vials, syringes), White (sharp waste, including needles, syringes with fixed needles) and Blue (broken or discarded and contaminated glassware, including medicine bottles).

Considered potentially infectious, all Covid waste, regardless of its content, is labeled Yellow and incinerated.

A priori, India seems well equipped to manage this additional load of biomedical waste with a national incineration capacity of 800 tons per day. But experts said there were other factors to consider.

“Like the fact that due to the health crisis, the production of non-Covid biomedical waste has also increased. Secondly, these incinerators are for waste that has been separated. But since Covid waste is not separated, the process compromises efficiency of incinerators,” said Siddharth Singh, deputy program director at the Center for Science and the Environment (CSE).

Whether emissions from these factories cause additional pollution remains unclear with faulty and non-functioning monitoring systems at most factories.

“We never know the extent of the pollution we do…we convert our land pollution into water or air pollution. That’s what we end up doing,” Singh said.

Additionally, although national incineration capacity appears sufficient, the ratio of waste generation to incineration capacity may not be achieved for individual states, he said.

For example, Maharashtra reported a 45% increase in the volume of its biomedical waste in May last year, with daily production rising from 62,000 kg per day before Covid to 90,000 kg per day, according to a report by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board.

To address this issue, the CPCB in July last year, in its revised guidelines for the management of Covid waste, said that states could contact the “hazardous waste treatment, storage and disposal facilities” of the Ministry of the Environment to deal with their Covid biomedical waste if it couldn’t handle the load.

Atin Biswas, Program Manager, Municipal Solid Waste at CSE, pointed out that while there are mechanisms in place, there was very little data on how many states had actually taken advantage of the facility or even were aware of it.

Despite the unprecedented health and environmental crisis, experts said there are ways to minimize the damage.

To start, Singh said individuals need to consciously reduce their plastic footprint.

“We have always looked at the plastic problem in terms of recycling, but the focus should be on how to minimize it. Waste management is about reducing and managing,” he said.

For Agarwal, proper disposal is essential to take one step closer to solving the problem.

“At the individual level, we have a big responsibility in how we get rid of things. It has to start at the individual level and the government has to meet the requirement as well. It’s a cooperation between the two. It can’t be done by one or the other.

“The role of municipalities here becomes very critical as waste collection from Covid homes is supposed to be done separately from general homes, but in many parts of the city (Delhi) this is not happening,” he said. declared.

Biswas from CSE agreed.

He said waste management is indeed a “shared responsibility” and that a “comprehensive communication strategy” is important to achieve the goal of reducing plastic pollution.

“Waste management is a behavioral challenge. The government has always seen this as an engineering problem and has been very poor at communication. If the government had invested in better communication, we would have less waste to deal with in the first place. “, did he declare. .

“We need a very comprehensive strategy and a comprehensive roadmap if we are to achieve certain milestones,” Biswas added.

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