By Pinky Chandran
The movie Contagion’s grim visuals of uncollected garbage lining deserted streets was one of the most profound images that stayed with me even after the movie ended. It continued to haunt me as I consumed media reports about increasing COVID19 positive cases.
On 17th March 2020, I put out a social media post highlighting the need to extend duty of care to waste workers. While the post was well received, with many citizens advocating for segregation of waste at source, I still felt restless. What was it that we were missing? Why is managing waste always an afterthought?
At a State Level Advisory Committee on SWM policy and strategy meeting, by the Directorate of Municipal Administration (DMA), I emphasised the need to include a chapter on Disaster Based Waste Management. The draft policy released by the DMA mentions Disaster Waste Management under special waste in the content page but does not specify a framework or approach.
Another incident that took place in February this year was when I was invited to a Content Creation Workshop on Disaster Preparedness for Cyclones through Community of Practice for Community Radio Stations, one of the key discussions was the inclusion on disaster waste management in the post disaster rescue operations.
This got me thinking. If one of the keys to managing disaster is preparedness, why do we disconnect from reality at multiple levels like planning and managing both waste and people working in waste? The lesson from 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was a mirror image of the movie Contagion as the flu did not differentiate between class. Waste management and people who work in and with waste are extremely vulnerable. So how do we draw up a framework to fortify systems, sensitize citizens and protect frontline workers? Can waste management be looked at as a critical service?
Challenges for waste management in the times of COVID19
On April 1, 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) director general’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 highlighted the near exponential growth in the number of new cases, in over five weeks. So what are the challenges for waste management?
Challenges are varied across generators of waste, type and quantity of waste, destinations, processes, worker safety, and other linkages, including reverse logistics.
The first challenge is to redefine the classification of generators during COVID-19. One must look at the general population including slums and informal settlements, people in home quarantines–both from people with mild symptoms and asymptomatic, waste from places post contact tracing, people in quarantine camps at the borders and other areas, COVID clusters, people in hospitals, general hospitals, diagnostic labs and street waste. But this classification only focuses on known infected cases and the non-affected population’s singular focus on protecting themselves.
Shekar Prabhakar, Co-founder of Hasiru Dala Innovation, says, “I suggest a flip for the non-affected population. They must consider themselves as asymptomatic carriers of the virus and must give a serious thought on what they are disposing or what is going out of their homes. Masks, gloves, hand/face tissues should be wrapped in a newspaper with a X prominently displayed and collected in garbage bags, placed in a separate container clearly kept aside and handed over to the waste collector only at the time of collection.”
Myriam Shankar, Co-founder of TAICT, agreeing with Prabhakar, says, “Now is the time to rigorously implement a system where we have a unified colour coded bin system. Waste should not be touched by anybody, especially at the waste worker level. Perhaps, now would be a good time to expand the current three bin into more categories, given that the corona virus stays on different surfaces for different period of times. It is unfair to expect the waste workers to segregate or even be dumped in the landfills/quarries.”
Street waste is another huge challenge in itself. Not only is it mixed, it also poses a huge risk if there is waste that has been contaminated. Shankar adds, “Hypothetically, I am playing out a scenario… If a COVID19 carrier throws a wrapper on the ground, say at a playground, and a child comes in contact accidentally and carries it home, embraces his mother etc., then the entire chain will be affected. Yes, I understand that this is not possible now during lockdown, but how long will the lockdown continue? But this could also be a waste worker who touches it. The prospects are scary. We need to be aware and cautious than sorry.”
The second challenge is the rise in biomedical waste from hospitals along with increase in disposal of personal protective equipment (PPE) by general public. As witnessed in Wuhan, China, where the novel coronavirus first emerged, the biomedical waste being generated was so high that the government had to deploy mobile waste treatment facilities and construct a new medical waste treatment plant.
According to Shankar, the installed capacity for biomedical waste is totally inadequate. She says, “With the amount of PPE disposed because of the corona virus, the city of Bangalore can only manage less than one/third of it properly as per the law. Imagine the increased outflow, it is extremely disturbing.”
Equally disturbing is the lax and I-don’t-care attitude towards segregation of waste at the household level leading to increase in mixed waste. Mixed waste, in times like these, compromise destinations and put public health at risk by large.
Prabhakar also believes that since the coronavirus is known to survive on certain dry waste items like cardboard, plastics etc., it must be stored for as long as possible in homes. He says, “The primary responsibility of thinking about waste and how to manage it has to be shifted up the chain to the waste generator (through consumption) and the brands (through products whose consumption creates waste). It is only then that downstream waste management can be optimised for material recovery with least harmful effects to waste workers.”
The third urgent challenge is inter-departmental coordination to map households and waste services, based on generators mentioned above. This needs to be digitally mapped. Along with this a multi-stakeholder mapping and inclusion is equally important. Different geographical areas house multi-population where space is a constant challenge, like slums or informal settlements. I would also place importance on the industry taking up extended producers’ responsibility and assuming responsibility.
The fourth challenge is around worker awareness and safety. The waste workers need to be trained on how to handle waste, new instructions must be provided of how to handle waste from specific generators who have been in home quarantine, and to handle the influx of PPE disposed from households. The distribution of PPE to all waste workers (formal and informal), including instructions on how to clean and when to dispose and where to seek supplies when the PPE is torn. A new study by researchers from the University of Hong Kong has found that the novel coronavirus stays on the outer layer of face masks for up to one week. What provisions have been made to ensure fresh supplies every day? At a special sitting of the Karnataka High Court on March 30, the Court directed the State to provide safety equipment to every sanitation worker in Karnataka and provide breakfast and transport facilities during the lockdown. Can the Karnataka Essential Services Maintenance Act, 2015, be used to protect waste workers both — registered and informal?
There is need for separate vehicles to collect these waste streams based on types of generator. But the problem arises when the worker has to also collect from the general population along with those quarantined or asymptomatic. What happens when the garbage falls from a torn bag? How do the workers handle that? Should the waste from these households be double bagged in plastic, which is banned in Karnataka, or should it be wrapped in newspaper?
The fifth challenge are the waste destinations – guidelines, processes, data and penalty. What are the guidelines on handling tissues or gloves mixed with dry waste? Should the entire lot be treated as contaminated even if one of the houses have an asymptomatic person? This is in relation to the staying power of the virus on different surfaces? What about the biomedical facilities themselves? How equipped are they to handle the waste? Has there been any preparedness, audit to check the capacity? How can data be tracked and compared? What are the provisions for dumping of COVID waste?
The sixth challenge is reverse supply chain logistics. While waste is being collected, it only gets accumulated in destinations as the rest of the downstream recycling and processing operations are shut down. What are the solutions then? Can the entire value chain from collection, recovery and recycling be treated as essential services?
‘The Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897’ to control communicable diseases is limited in its approach as it is only regulatory in nature and is silent on many areas including the implementation of response measures. The act completely excludes people and the human rights angle and is oblivious to the issues of waste.
The Disaster Management Act, 2005, is much broader in its focus but leaves much to be interpreted if a pandemic would be classified as a natural disaster. It does make a mention for the need for debris removal and the need for preparing a disaster management plan including a disaster rescue plan, which is more relevant, to our context.
The Karnataka Epidemic Diseases, COVID19 Regulations 2020, notified in the gazette under the Epidemic Diseases Act, to prevent the outbreak and spread of Coronavirus in force for one year from 11th March 2020, makes no mention of waste management.
On 18th March 2020, the Central Pollution Control Board issued the ‘Guidelines for Handling, Treatment and Disposal of Waste Generated during Treatment/Diagnosis/Quarantine of COVID19 Patients’. The covering letter specified that in addition to these guidelines, existing Solid Waste Management Rules-2016, and Biomedical Waste Management Rules-2016 must be practised. The guidelines provide a series of steps for handling and safe disposal of waste from different quarters. It recommends double bagging of waste from COVID19 wards including labelling bags/containers as COVID19 Waste, recording generation of waste, use of separate trolleys and disinfectant methods.
For quarantine camps/home care, the guidelines recommend that routine waste is treated as part of SWM Rules-2016 and only biomedical waste be collected separately in a yellow bag and handed over to authorised waste collector. It however does not specifically address asymptomatic people or those with mild symptoms, assuming that positive cases will be hospitalised.
One positive aspect of the guideline is under the duties of State Pollution Control Board to maintain all records of COVID19 treatment wards, quarantine centres and homes and specifies the need for collection of biomedical waste from locations not under regular healthcare facility.