(Image: Twitter @HardeepSPuri)
The COVID-19 outbreak has left its impact on the health, social, economic and environment sector too. The vaccine has brought a ray of hope, but the absence of a strategy for disposing of COVID-19-related biomedical waste is still a threat.
Data released by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has shown that between June and December, biomedical waste generated due to COVID-19 was 33,000 tonnes. The CPCB submitted a report before the National Green Tribunal in July stating that India generates 101 metric tonnes (MT) per day of COVID-19-related biomedical waste, in addition to 609 MT biomedical waste generated daily through other means.
Cities that witnessed a higher number of COVID-19 cases are now facing a problem of used/contaminated personal protection equipment (PPE), masks, gloves, shoe covers, etc. thrown in the open or dumped with household wastes. Despite restricting PPE kits for medical professionals, many non-medical persons used them and disposed them with the regular garbage. They are now posing an immense risk to the ecosystem.
Though the hospitals and COVID-19 care centres have protocols when it comes to waste segregation, the unscientific disposal of COVID-19 biomedical waste by corporations and private contractors remains worrisome.
There is no mechanism for tracking vehicles that carry biomedical waste, and no way to check if such waste is stored properly before incineration. Protective equipment such as goggles, shoe covers are made up of plastic that is a threat to the environment in the long run. At the household level, COVID-19-related waste generated by those under quarantine is not separated while disposed. Such contaminated waste is mixed with other household waste while garbage is collected.
The World Health Organization and the Government of India issued guidelines on how to dispose of COVID-19-related biomedical waste, which includes proper segregation of waste and protection for sanitation workers, among others. However, the disposal chain of sorting, segregation, transport, temporary storage, and waste management of ordinary biomedical waste has been disturbed during the pandemic. Proper segregation of dry and wet waste is still not followed, and this is affecting the entire disposal chain further.
Sanitation workers are seldom provided with sufficient PPE kits, soap, and water, which is a basic necessity during this pandemic. Such workers are generally underpaid by municipal corporations, and where such work is outsourced to contractors, safety guidelines are rarely followed. Proper checks and balances are seldom maintained to ensure the safety of workers.
Informal participants in the disposal chain, such as rag pickers, slum dwellers, waste collectors are exposed to such biomedical waste and are often not prevented from collecting it. They are neither trained nor equipped in collecting COVID-19 waste, but forced to do so to earn their daily livelihood. This clearly shows that the risk of disease transmission and virus exposure is high among sanitation workers and waste collectors.
In places where there is a mechanism for disposal of waste, problems have cropped up. For example, Mumbai’s only biomedical waste disposal unit in Deonar slums has been operational 24X7. This has led to thick, and sticky smoke in the neighbourhood leading to breathing and skin-related ailments. After protests from the residents, the government has assured to shift the unit outside the city in a year’s time. It is a clear case of the government’s lack of vision.
The direct impact COVID-19-related biomedical waste has on the air, water, soil, and animals cannot be overlooked. India does not have proper sewage water treatment plants and most of the time sewage water flows into water bodies like rivers and the sea. The sewage water, which now also contains the fluids and faeces of COVID-19 patients will pollute water bodies — and its short and long term impact is yet unknown.
There are several lessons India can — nay, must learn from the pandemic: bringing reforms and implementing better biomedical waste management techniques should be at the top. As an immediate measure, an efficient strategy and a robust system is required to deal with the looming threat.
The disposal chain has to be activated with the implementation of strict norms. Along with awareness drives, emphasis should be on reusable masks, gloves, etc. to reduce the amount of waste generated. Greater and systemic participation of the recycling industry will help to reduce the burden in a long way.
The goal should be to drastically reduce environmental damage — because a healthy environment is essential for a healthy life.