Biomedical Waste a Grave Hazard for the Planet

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As much as we combat the coronavirus, we need to tackle the biomedical waste crisis as well

Ramnath Vaidyanathan

In November 2019, a dead sperm whale washed up on Luskentyre Beach in the Outer Hebrides with more than 220 pounds of tangled netting, rope, plastic and other debris inside its stomach. In May this year, almost one million shoes and over 370,000 toothbrushes, among the 414 million pieces of plastic, were found on the remote Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean. If these numbers are alarming, then the worst is yet to come.  

The COVID-19 crisis has not only disrupted our lives but also brought us the much-needed respite from some of the grave threats being faced by our planet. Pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have fallen across the world as countries try to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. It has also substantially reduced the stress faced by sensitive ecosystems, wildlife, etc. However, it has spawned other threats for our planet which pose an imminent and grave danger for the world and its inhabitants. The looming pandemic has forced many countries to compel their citizens to use personal protective equipment (PPE) such as surgical masks, gloves, protective equipment and body bags.  

PPEs Pose a Risk 

While PPEs are important from a public health perspective, they have become an additional threat to the world, especially the oceans and other water bodies which have been choking under the weight of plastic. Environmentalists have been warning about the threat posed to oceans and marine life by skyrocketing plastic pollution for years; and not without reason.  

According to a 2018 estimate by the UN Environment Programme, as much as 13 million tonnes of plastic goes into oceans each year. About 570,000 tonnes of plastic flow into the Mediterranean annually, which according to the WWF is equal to dumping 33,800 plastic bottles every minute into the sea. This is set to increase as the crisis continues to wreak havoc. 

Disposable masks and latex gloves are floating in the oceans or scattered across seabeds. PPEs could add to the glut of plastic waste that already threatens marine life. Environmental campaigners rightly fear it is just the tip of a looming iceberg. 

Though COVID-19 sneaked into India relatively late, the problems caused by biomedical waste has already attained an alarming situation in the country. As on July 5, 2020, the country had 244,814 active cases and had registered 19,268 deaths. The pandemic has led to an exponential increase in the quantum of biomedical waste being generated.  

While PPEs are important from a public health perspective, they have become an additional threat to the world, especially the oceans and other water bodies which have been choking under the weight of plastic. Environmentalists have been warning about the threat posed to oceans and marine life by skyrocketing plastic pollution for years; and not without reason

India was already in the throes of a plastic waste management crisis. The country generates close to 26,000 tonnes of plastic a day with a little over 10,000 tonnes a day remaining uncollected, according to a CPCB estimate. India’s per capita plastic consumption, at less than 11 kg, is nearly a tenth of the US (109 kg); however, plastic consumption is increasing. The plastic processing industry is estimated to grow to 22 million tonnes (MT) a year by 2020 from 13.4 MT in 2015 and nearly half of this is single-use plastic, according to a Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry study. 

Solid Action Needed  

India has robust waste management protocols for biomedical waste management. The Bio-Medical Waste Management Rules 2016 provides for strict rules to improve the collection, segregation, transport, and disposal of waste. The rules are updated from time-to-time to account for new developments and requirements such as the COVID-19 crisis. 

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had in April issued detailed guidelines on handing COVID-19 biomedical waste. The National Green Tribunal had also urged the State pollution control boards and pollution control committees to take steps to mitigate the possible risk of unscientific disposal of the bio-medical waste. 

While the regulatory framework is efficient and robust, the country fails when it comes to the implementation of rules governing the biomedical waste. It has severely handicapped the country’s efforts to handle its biomedical waste.  

For instance, the country has 200 Common Bio-medical Waste Treatment and Disposal Facilities (CBWTFs) and 12,296 captive treatment and disposal facilities. Of the two CBWTFs – two are in Delhi and one in Mumbai, according to data available with CPCB. The country generates about 608 MT per day of bio-medical waste, out of which 528 MT is treated and disposed of through either CBWTF or captive disposal facilities. 

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had in April issued detailed guidelines on handing COVID-19 biomedical waste. The National Green Tribunal had also urged the State pollution control boards and pollution control committees to take steps to mitigate the possible risk of unscientific disposal of the bio-medical waste

According to data provided by CPCB and the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, the CBWTFs in Delhi and Mumbai are running at 70-75 per cent and 70 per cent capacities. While the shortfall in the capacity during pre-Corona days was a cause for concern, it can be safely assumed that the deficit would have substantially increased since COVID-19 entered India.  

India has sufficient expertise and working models to handle the waste it generates. What the country lacks is ensuring last mile connectivity – ensuring segregated waste reaches the waste handlers. The country needs to step up its efforts to educate its citizens in handling waste, especially biomedical waste.  

Biomedical waste has a higher potential of infection and injury to the healthcare worker, patient and the community at large, and hence, it must be handled with utmost care. Awareness programmes on their proper handling and management to healthcare workers can prevent the spread of infectious diseases and epidemics and optimise the segregation of biomedical waste. 

The country must step up its efforts to sensitise the larger community about the proper handling of biomedical waste. While it was important during normal times, it has attained increased importance during this current pandemic. Improper handling of biomedical waste raises the threat of the spread of the contagion and also increases threats to the environment.  

Multi-pronged Action Required 

The novel coronavirus can potentially survive in the environment for several hours/days, and as such, improperly discarded PPEs can 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. 

Carelessly discarded lightweight masks and gloves can be carried from landfills by wind and water and end up in the seas and oceans, thereby endangering marine life. Like plastic bags or straws, it could be the new category of marine debris. 

Common people can and need to play a major role in reducing the environmental hazards caused by biomedical waste. Avoiding the generation of waste is at the core of all biomedical waste management methods. Citizens need to understand the threat caused by improperly-handled biomedical waste and avoid the use of single-use masks and gloves as far as possible. With all indications pointing to the coronavirus continuing to disrupt our lives, it is high time we adopted environmentally-friendly practices. 

While it is too early to assess the impact of the biomedical waste generated in India during COVID-19, one thing is certain: the implications of our action could spell years of trouble for our ecosystem, oceans, and each one of us. 

Ramnath Vaidyanathan is General Manager, Sustainability, Good and Green, Godrej Industries.