By Ramnath Vaidyanathan
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought life as we know it to a grinding halt. People have been confined to their homes, roads are emptier than we’ve ever seen them, travel curbs have only been lifted, economic activity has only started up.
It’s safe to say that no one, in our generation, has ever seen disruption on such a scale before and naturally it has had its consequences social and economic.
While air pollution is at the lowest we’ve seen in a long, long time, especially in an age when the sustainability debate is so focused on climate change, the pandemic continues to take a toll on our planet in other just as grave and potentially fatal ways.
PPE’s pose a risk
To slow down the rapid global spread of the pandemic, governments around the world have urged their citizens to use personal protective equipment such as surgical masks and gloves. Some of those braving air travel have even acquired full-body hazmat suits.
The demand for PPE from the healthcare industry is even greater and understandably so. The churn, with frontline medical professionals required to change their PPE at regular intervals, is even faster.
These measures, while necessary to keep the general population and our brave frontline COVID-19 warriors safe, have led to an exponential increase in biomedical waste and most of it is ending up in our oceans.
According to a 2018 estimate by the UN Environment Programme, as much as 13 million tonnes of plastic goes into oceans each year. In May 2019, almost a million shoes and over 370,000 toothbrushes were among the 414 million pieces of plastic found on the remote Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Oceans.
These numbers are alarming. Add in all the biomedical waste resulting from the ongoing pandemic, such as the disposable masks and latex gloves already found floating in the oceans, and the worst is yet to come.
Exacerbating the plastic waste crisis
India, in particular, has been in the throes of a plastic waste management since before the pandemic. We generate close to 26,000 tonnes of plastic a day with a little over 10,000 tonnes a day remaining uncollected, according to a Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) estimate.
The plastic processing industry is estimated to grow to 22 million tonnes (MT) a year by 2020 from 13.4 MT in 2015, according to a Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry -Ficci Study. Nearly half of this is single-use plastic.
The problem isn’t a lack of rules. India has stringent waste management protocols for treating biomedical waste. The CPCB has even issued detailed guidelines specifically aimed at handling waste resulting from the pandemic. Meanwhile, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has also warned states about the risk from unscientific disposal of bio-medical waste.
No, we have the regulatory framework. It’s the implementation of that framework that is the problem.
The country generates about 608 MT per day of bio-medical waste, out of which 528 MT is treated and disposed through either Common Bio-medical Waste Treatment and Disposal Facilities (CBWTFs) or captive disposal facilities. The capacity shortfall was a concern even before the pandemic struck. It is safe to assume the problem has become far worse after COVID-19.
It is imperative for the country to step up its efforts to sensitise the larger community about proper handling of biomedical waste. While necessary even during pre-COVID times, this has assumed even greater importance in the wake of the pandemic.
Improper handling of biomedical waste, after all, not only increases the threat to the environment but also the risk of contagion.
Action at the individual level
We know now that the novel coronavirus can survive in the environment for several hours/days. It is a scientifically established fact. Improperly discarded PPEs can therefore pose health risks to waste pickers, sanitation workers and garbage collectors tasked with handling them.
In India, biomedical waste poses a grave risk to the lives of scavengers who sort out open, unprotected health-care waste with no gloves, masks, or shoes for recycling.
So how do we fix this? All of us at an individual level have a major role to play in averting this catastrophe. Avoiding generation of waste is at the core all biomedical waste management methods.
All we need to do is switch over to reusable cloth masks and gloves from instead of single use paper masks and latex gloves. They are as effective as far as their role as PPE is concerned. At the same time, they’re also good for the environment.
The pandemic has given us a unique opportunity to allow our planet to heal from all the excesses we have subjected it to. So let’s make the most of that opportunity rather than damage our environment further.
(Ramnath Vaidyanathan, General Manager, Sustainability, Good and Green, Godrej Industries)