The Covid crisis is now also a garbage crisis
The increased consumption of plastics and packaging during the pandemic has produced mountains of waste. But because COVID-19 fears led to work stoppages at recycling facilities, some reusable materials were thrown away or burned instead.
At the same time, high volumes of personal protective equipment, or PPE, have been wrongly classified as hazardous, according to solid waste experts. This material is often not allowed in normal garbage cans, so much of it is dumped in burn pits or as litter.
Experts say a problem in both cases is that an early fear – that the coronavirus could easily spread across surfaces – created a hard-to-shake stigma around handling perfectly safe waste. Many scientists and government agencies have since discovered that the fear of surface transmission is vastly exaggerated. But old habits die hard, especially in countries where waste disposal guidelines have not been updated and authorities are still concerned about tackling new epidemics.
“Because there is no route of transmission through recycling, say, we always find things that are burned rather than recycled because people are afraid” of surface transmission, said Anne Woolridge, who leads a medical waste working group for the International Solid Waste Association. âYou are trying to educate the entire world population in less than a year. It’s impossible.”
As for PPE, Woolridge said, the sight of gloves and masks littering the world would have been unthinkable before the pandemic. âBut because everyone is saying that anything that has to do with the pandemic is medical waste, it puts pressure on the system,â she said.
Recycling rates fell sharply around the world last year, in part due to declining demand from manufacturers. In many countries where the recycling industry still focuses on manual sorting rather than machines, in-person work has been suspended for fear of viruses.
In Brazil, for example, the production of recyclable materials in cities increased by 25% in 2020, mainly due to an increase in online shopping, according to Abrelpe, a national association of sanitation companies. But recycling programs in several cities have suspended operations for several months anyway, citing fears of surface transmission.
This had obvious human and environmental costs. A recent study found that during the suspension period, at least 16,000 tonnes of recyclable material less than usual were in circulation, representing an economic loss of approximately $ 1.2 million per month. for associations of waste collectors.
Another study said that a month of suspensions was a missed opportunity to save the amount of electricity used by more than 152,000 households.
“The suspension highlighted the weaknesses of our system,” said Liane Nakada, co-author of the second article and researcher at the University of Campinas. She and her husband stored their recycling at home for months to avoid throwing it away inappropriately, but they were the exception.
A global divide
Recycling rates are gradually returning to pre-COVID levels in developed economies, said James Michelsen, solid waste expert at International Finance Corp.
âThe numbers are getting back to normal, and we go from a discussion of COVID to one of ‘OK, let’s get back to circularity, sustainability, recycling plastics,â âMichelsen said.
But in countries where recycling is driven by informal collectors, he added, lockdowns and epidemics still create major disruption.
Before a recent COVID outbreak hit Kampala, Uganda, hundreds of people gathered to collect plastics at a city dump. They then sold the plastics to middlemen, who later sold them to recycling companies.
But when the country went into lockdown this summer, movement restrictions prevented trucks from picking up trash in some neighborhoods. There were also fears of surface transmission; officials said COVID was on the rise because people had not washed their hands.
This month, only about a third of the usual number of waste pickers were at the Kampala city landfill, said Luke Mugerwa, a representative of a local pick-up group. Some manufacturers who came to collect reclaimed plastics were unlucky.
âEvery day they are always on the lookout for plastics to buy,â Mugerwa said. âThe demand is there, but the supply is very low.
Another challenge is the used PPE that has flooded the world since the early days of the pandemic. About 8 million tonnes of plastics already enter the ocean each year, and experts fear the use of PPE and other waste will make the situation even worse.
Most PPE is not dangerous, but many countries still classify it as such, Michelsen said. This means that used gloves and masks are often lumped together with truly hazardous medical waste and either treated at great expense – a waste of money – or disposed of in other ways.
âIf you have high volumes coming out of the back of your hospitals into these areas that don’t have the infrastructure, they’re just going to set them on fire,â Woolridge said.
The United Nations Environment Program estimated last year that healthcare facilities around the world produced around 7.5 pounds of COVID-related medical waste per person per day globally. He said that in Jakarta, Indonesia, and four other Asian mega-cities, the overall rate of healthcare waste disposal has increased by about 500%.
Some of this waste inevitably ends up in litter.
In the Indonesian capital, surveys of pre-pandemic pollution of a local river mouth by the Center for Oceanographic Research did not reveal much PPE. But a recent survey found that equipment such as masks, face shields, gloves and hazmat suits accounted for around 15% of pollution.
âEven in Jakarta, which has the country’s largest budget for environmental management, waste continues to seep into the environment,â said Muhammad Reza Cordova, a scientist involved in river surveys. âWhat about other areas with smaller budgets? ”
On the hunt for syringes
One emerging concern is that as the influx of materials puts new pressure on local authorities, syringes and other truly dangerous medical waste can end up in the wrong places.
In the poorest countries of the world, this would pose a risk to the health of waste pickers. Tens of thousands of people are already rummaging in landfills in Bangladesh, for example. But only three or four of the country’s 64 districts have facilities to safely dispose of used syringes, said Mostafizur Rahman, a solid waste expert in the capital, Dhaka.
“These landfills are not safe or hygienic, so it’s really a concern in terms of environmental health and safeguards,” said Rahman, professor of environmental sciences at Jahangirnagar University.
And because syringes and vaccine vials are a precious commodity on the black market, criminal gangs are encouraged to steal vaccine supplies and resell them illegally through the health care system.
Late last year, Interpol warned that the pandemic had already “sparked unprecedented opportunistic and predatory criminal behavior” around the theft, tampering and illegal advertising of COVID and flu vaccines. The warning came even before most of the world’s population had received a COVID vaccine.
âIt’s a real problem in the market,â Michelsen said. “These vials have enormous black market value because you can fill them with anything you want and sell them.”