World Environment Day 2021: COVID-19 pandemic detritus adds to waste crisis
New Delhi, June 04: The crisis of plastic and biomedical waste is deepening with each Covid case as millions of people use and throw face shields, surgical masks, gloves and PPE suits, once used primarily in hospitals and now an indispensable part of everyday life.
The movement against plastic has taken a battering in the pandemic with dependency on single-use plastic surging and households contributing to the tonnes of biomedical waste being generated, worried experts said ahead of World Environment Day on Saturday.
The detritus of the pandemic can be seen everywhere - PPE suits lying discarded behind hospitals and crematoriums, surgical masks and shields being thrown as part of household waste and, of course, sanitiser bottles, gloves and the like found in street corner garbage dumps.
With waste disposal mechanisms less than perfect in India and the 'plastic footprint' becoming larger by the day, concerns on plastic waste choking the planet and worries about safety are mounting.
"There has been a general increase and since it is a crisis situation, we are not thinking of plastic but general prevention. The focus is no longer plastic, so that is a problem," Ravi Agarwal, founder director of the environmental NGO Toxics Link, told PTI.
"A lot of biomedical waste like masks and PPE kits are also being generated in general homes now. So that is becoming a big problem. These things are finding their way across ecosystems. A lot of these things like masks can be seen on beaches, in coral reefs etc," he added.
According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), India produced 45,308 tonnes of COVID-19 biomedical waste between June 2020 and May 10, 2021, an average daily generation of 132 tonnes of COVID-19 related waste.
This is in addition to the 615 tonnes of biomedical waste a day being produced before COVID-19, amounting to a 17 per cent increase in biomedical waste generation solely because of the pandemic. Besides Covid-related waste from hospitals and homes with positive patients, there is 'pandemic promoted' waste from non-Covid homes, including not just protective gear but also plastic packaging with more and more people using home deliveries for essential and non-essential shopping.
Under the existing waste disposal rules, biomedical waste is segregated into four categories - Yellow (highly infectious waste such as human, animal, anatomical, soiled), Red (contaminated recyclable waste generated from disposable items like tubing, bottles tubes, syringes), White (waste sharps, including needles, syringes with fixed needles), and Blue (broken or discarded and contaminated glassware, including medicine vials).
Considered potentially infectious, all Covid waste, irrespective of content, is tagged Yellow and incinerated. On the face of it, India seems well equipped to handle this extra load of biomedical waste with a national incineration capacity of 800 tonnes a day. But experts said there are other factors that needed to be taken into account.
"Like the fact that due to the health crisis, non-Covid biomedical waste generation has also gone up. Secondly, these incinerators are meant for waste that has been segregated. But since Covid waste is not being segregated, the process compromises the efficiency of the incinerators," said Siddharth Singh, deputy programme manager at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
Whether emissions from these plants are causing further pollution remains unclear with flawed and non-functional monitoring systems at most plants.
"We never know the extent of pollution we are doing... we are converting our land based pollution to water or air pollution. That's what we end up doing," Singh told PTI.
Moreover, while national incineration capacity seems sufficient, the waste generation to incineration capacity ratio might not be met for individual states, he said.
For instance, Maharashtra reported a 45 per cent increase in the volume of its biomedical waste in May last year, with daily generation going 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 problem, the CPCB in July last year in its revised guidelines for Covid waste management said states could approach the Environment Ministry's 'Hazardous Waste Treatment, Storage, and Disposal Facilities' to deal with their Covid biomedical waste if it could not manage the load. Atin Biswas, programme director, Municipal Solid Waste at CSE, pointed out that while there were mechanisms in place, there was very little data on how many states had actually availed, or even knew of the facility.
Notwithstanding the unprecedented health and environment crisis, the experts said there are ways to minimise the damage. To begin with, Singh said individuals needed 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 minimise it. Waste management is to reduce and manage," he said.
For Agarwal, proper disposal is key to coming one step closer towards solving the problem. "At an individual level we have a big responsibility in how we dispose of things. It has to start at the individual level and the government also has to meet the requirement. It's cooperation between the two.
It cannot be done by one or the other. "The role of municipalities becomes very critical here because waste collection from Covid homes is supposed to be done separately from general homes, but in many parts of the city (Delhi) that is not happening," he said.
CSE's Biswas agreed.
He said waste management is indeed a "shared responsibility", and a "comprehensive communication strategy" is important to achieve the goal of reducing plastic pollution.
"Waste management is a behavioural challenge. Government has always perceived this to be an engineering problem and has been very poor at communication. Had the government invested in better communication, we would have less waste to deal with in the first place," he said.
"We do need a very comprehensive strategy and a comprehensive roadmap if we have to achieve certain milestones," Biswas added. (June 5 is celebrated as World Environment Day)