Home / Opinion / Quick Edit /  Can our waste management systems handle the covid-19 pandemic?

With access to only 198 Common Bio-Medical Waste Treatment Facilities (CBMWTFs) and 225 captive incinerators, can India’s healthcare facilities handle the rise in waste quantities anticipated from the covid-19 outbreak? To put this in context, coronavirus epicentre Wuhan witnessed a six times increase in biomedical waste during the peak of its outbreak.

As of 2017, only about 78% of India’s total 200,000 tonnes of biomedical waste (BMW) was treated by CBWTFs. The remainder was treated and disposed of either by captive treatment facilities or deep burials. Seven states lack CBMWT facilities. On the other hand, some non-hazardous wastes, like dry recyclable waste (which has immediate monetary value) must also be handled with utmost care after coming in contact with covid-19 patients. Along with virus-laden waste from treatment, diagnostic and quarantine facilities, the bigger challenge arises from the

household waste of those exhibiting minor or negligible symptom. A recent study[1] published in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated that the virus stays on cardboard for about 24 hours and on plastics and stainless steel for about 72 hours. The concern that this creates for sanitation workers and informal sector waste collectors cannot be neglected. An estimated ragpickers’ workforce of 1.5 to 4.0 million in our country performs waste collection, sorting and recycling. If not informed or their safety issues addressed, their health can be put at risk. Thus, there is an urgent need for citizens to be sensitised about segregated and protected disposal of household waste. As far as possible, dry waste should be quarantined within the premises for an appropriate time period before disposal, thereby allowing the virus to die. Organic waste must be managed via in-house composting methods.

Waste segregation and segregated waste collection has been an issue till date in most Indian cities. However, there is an urgent need for proper segregation of hazardous household waste, and its subsequent management through Hazardous Waste Treatment Storage and Disposal Facilities (HWTSDFs) via urban local bodies. Equally important is the proper disposal of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), including

protective suits, gloves, masks, and other waste from hospitals, medical facilities or clinics through appropriate CBMWTFs. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has issued guidelines for BMW management for covid-19 treatment, diagnostics and quarantine, issued an advisory to CBMWTFs to operate extra hours and asked for PPE kits for collection staff and vehicles. Yet, there is a need for immediate capacity building and guidance to manage municipal solid waste, especially household hazardous waste.

Also critical is the need for appropriate monitoring, review and verification mechanisms for CBMWTFs and to ensure proper monitoring of their operations in the ongoing high-risk scenario. For the waste management ecosystem to respond effectively, corporate social responsibility initiatives, non-governmental organisations and waste management players must come together. Collaboration will ensure that sanitation and on-ground health staff have access to PPE kits, and also help manage the flow of waste safely in this pandemic situation.

Sourabh Manuja is fellow, environment & waste management division, TERI.

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