We’ve been self-quarantining and isolating ourselves for the past four months now, owing to the detrimental effects of the novel Coronavirus. And some say, which most of us agree too, that nature is flourishing and is on course to heal itself. We are witnessing peacocks roaming around our backyards, wildlife lingering on empty streets, and birds chirping a little extra, each, celebrating freedom from humans. But, is the pandemic actually helping the environment restore itself to its former glory?
It seems as though we humans never learn. We’re repeating history.
As we all are aware, there has been a huge demand for medical protective supplies such as masks, gloves, hand sanitizers, hospital gowns, and other components of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Medical institutions, hospitals, and households have stocked up these essentials to save lives, and prevent the spread of the virus. This has resulted in an increase in biomedical waste ending up in water bodies, causing grave danger to aquatic life.
A statement made by a spokesperson for the French NGO, Opération Mer Propre, has sparked conversations around Coronavirus and its harmful effects on water bodies, mainly oceans. He said, “Soon there will be more masks than jellyfish in the waters of the Mediterranean”, and described it as “COVID waste”. Of the total COVID waste generated, almost 75% comprise Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) kits.
While we may have reduced air pollution by staying indoors, COVID will have an adverse impact on water bodies. Dozens of disposable masks have turned up on seashores and accumulated as marine debris, piling up along with disposable plastic bags. Surgical masks are problematic because they contain non-woven material, which is non-biodegradable and breaks down into microplastics when subjected to the roughness of the oceans.
Many COVID-care centres are not segregating biomedical waste in the right, procedural manner, despite the Central Pollution Control Board of India issuing guidelines on the disposal of COVID-related waste. The treatment of biomedical COVID waste follows the same guidelines as normal biomedical waste where it is collected by authorities and taken to treatment facilities. But, the catch here is that there is no count as to number of the people using and disposing of biomedical waste, especially disposable masks, leading to a large portion of it on landfills and marine land.
Kerala had earlier banned the usage of single-use plastic this year owing to its environmental impacts. But, currently, we are seeing a rise in plastic items being used to protect oneself against the pandemic. Over the past few months, we have been heavily dependent on single-use plastic which includes N95 masks, gloves, shoe covers, packaging food, PPE kits, and goggles. The quantity of Covid-19 waste has touched 9 tonnes a day. If it increases, facilities that treat biomedical waste won’t have the capacity to handle them. In fact, it is also contributing to a bigger problem of piling up of disposable waste that often leads to polluting water bodies.
The Kerala chapter of the Indian Medical Association, which runs IMAGE, that handles hospital waste in Kerala, has gotten access to a 3-acre land at Bramapuram for setting up a common biomedical waste treatment facility (CBWTF). This facility will process all the biomedical waste in all health care facilities from the districts of Idukki, Kottayam, Ernakulam, and Alappuzha. They are also looking at addressing domestic medical waste in these districts as it is one of the main causes of land and water pollution.
Sure, saving lives should be our top priority. But COVID waste management is important too, and yet, remains a relatively undiscussed topic.