Everyone’s wary of the coronavirus news by now.
Though much has been said and debated about the origin and spread of the coronavirus, how it had led to an increase in the generation of medical waste and the collapse of the waste management sector has been left in the dark. The coronavirus had caused a permanent increase in medical waste at a global level.
Through this article, I attempt to look at how the virus affected waste management in India and what the future holds for this country’s medical waste management industry.
The waste management sector is responsible for ensuring and managing heaps of medical waste that pose health risks and, in current times, could elevate the risk of spreading COVID-19.
The impact of COVID-19 on waste management in India is alarming, even though the pandemic has reduced air pollution and environment-related issues to some extent. A waste management emergency has appeared due to the stockpiling of medical equipment, including masks, gloves, gowns, and other protective equipment, often designed for single-use and immediate disposal, from healthcare facilities.
The spread of COVID-19 via secondary transmission has escalated following the medical waste generated by individuals and healthcare facilities and the failure to effectively dispose off the waste. Furthermore, developing countries have experienced severe consequences without standard waste management policies to curb the pandemic.
Over 2 billion people don’t have access to waste collection, and over 3 billion people don’t have access to waste disposal. The world was already grappling with waste management issues before the pandemic, and the spread of the virus worldwide has elevated the waste management sector’s problems.
The waste management sector had witnessed a staggering spike in biomedical waste due to COVID-19.
India had generated over 18,000 tonnes of COVID-19-related biomedical waste between June and September 2020, including personal protective equipment (PPE), face masks, head covers, plastic coverall, gloves, syringes, hazmat suits, and other medical equipment used by healthcare providers and patients. The glaring data was published by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).
On average, India generated 101 tonnes of biomedical waste per day in June 2020 to 183 tonnes of biomedical waste due to COVID-19 per day in September 2020.
Sourabh Manuja from the Centre for Waste Management, Environment and Waste Management Division at The Energy and Resources Institute believes that the number of cases has directly affected the rise in medical waste generation.
It’s not just the medical waste management sector that witnessed a spike in waste. Governments worldwide had to impose lockdowns and social distancing measures, triggering panic buying of various products, such as face masks, alcohol-based sanitisers, gloves, toilet papers, and more. It resulted in the disposal of perishable products and medical equipment, eventually generating tonnes of waste.
Other countries have also witnessed an increase in medical waste due to COVID-19. Barcelona generated about 1200 tonnes of medical waste compared to 275 tonnes generated earlier, witnessing a rise of 350% in medical waste, including face masks and gloves. According to reports from China, 159,000 tonnes of medical waste were disposed off in six weeks since late January, when the country witnessed the pandemic’s peak. Wuhan alone disposed off almost 245 tonnes of medical waste.
The rise in the medical waste can be accredited to the waste management sector’s failure to manage and effectively dispose off waste. Waste management during COVID-19 in India and other countries still might have a chance to improve. According to several researchers, disposed off face masks can be used to make roads to reduce pandemic-related medical waste.
According to a study conducted at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, one kilometre of a two-lane road can use about 3 million masks, preventing 93 tonnes of medical waste from ending up in landfills. The study also reveals that the new road-making material combines single-use face masks and processed building rubble to meet engineering safety standards and provide strength.
Almost every household has generated biomedical waste during the pandemic. According to data published by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), India had produced 33,000 tonnes of biomedical waste between June 2020 and January 2021.
Secondary transmission of the coronavirus is not the only concern arising from inadequate segregation, collection, and disposal. Biomedical waste management during COVID-19 can pose severe health risks for waste pickers and people living near dumping sites and landfills.
India witnessed an increase of 46% in biomedical waste due to COVID-19, with 139 tonnes per day in April 2021 and 203 tonnes per day in May 2021. However, the percentage of biomedical waste treated declined from 92.8% to 88%.
Bihar and Karnataka topped the list of contributors by leaving 69% and 47% of biomedical waste untreated, respectively. Out of 203 tonnes of biomedical waste generated per day, Kerala contributed an average of 23.71 tonnes per day, followed by Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Delhi, generating 21.98 tonnes, 19.02 tonnes per day, and 18.79 tonnes, respectively.
As of May 31, 2021, Maharashtra is the top contributor in pandemic-generated biomedical waste, accounting for 17% of India’s biomedical waste due to covid-19. India witnessed an increase of about 17% in biomedical waste generation due to the pandemic.
India is suspected of generating over 1.3 billion used syringes, needles, and over 100 million discarded glass vials by the end of the vaccinations drive, which, if not disposed off as per the COVID-19 vaccines operational guidelines released on December 28, 2020, can add to the already worsening problem.
The virus stays on the mask for seven days, making proper disposal crucial to prevent secondary transmission.
According to a Gap analysis study conducted by the International Institute of Population Sciences (IIPS), 23 out 35 states and union territories are at an increased risk of additional biomedical waste due to COVID-19 due to non-adherence to biomedical waste management rules.
Healthcare experts believe segregating COVID-19 waste from medical waste, according to the provisions under Bio-medical Waste Management Rules, 2016, Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, and CPCB’s COVID-19 guidelines, can increase the proper management and reduce the potential risk of infections.
However, the lack of separate containers to dispose off medical waste has made it challenging.