COVID-19 and the changing nature of waste

A discarded mask found along the Mumbai coastline. Photo courtesy- Prasant Barik, Aahwahan Foundation

A discarded mask found along the Mumbai coastline. Photo courtesy- Prasant Barik, Aahwahan Foundation

  • Globally, it is estimated that 4.4 to 15.1 million tons of pandemic-related plastic waste was generated as of August 2021, of which roughly 25,000 tons have entered the world’s oceans.
  • Face masks were the most common biomedical waste littered along the Ganges and Mekong rivers in 2021, according to a project by the United Nations Environment Programme.
  • The waste management sector, especially recycling, is still struggling to recover from the effects of the pandemic. India could strengthen its waste management road map by incorporating a circular economy approach, recommend experts.

As the COVID-19 pandemic brought sweeping changes to lifestyles, it also altered an important but seldom thought-of aspect of human existence – trash. The pandemic has drastically changed the types and amounts of waste that are being generated in the last two years and will likely continue to do so for the next few years.

For instance, a report in The Science of the Total Environment in November 2021 points out that the waste produced during the mass vaccination drives to curb COVID-19 transmission could have huge environmental effects. India, which initiated one of the world’s largest vaccination drives in January 2021 with 3,000 vaccination centers across the country has generated massive amounts of biowaste from discarded vials. In addition, every step of the vaccination process – starting with the bulk production and usage of surgical masks, gloves, syringes, and disinfectants, to the production and storage of vaccines – are contributing to  global greenhouse gas emissions. Improper disposal of the waste such as masks is also creating toxic plastic wastes.

In India, as elsewhere globally, COVID-19 created surges in the demand and use of single-use plastic products – most notably, in the biomedical, pharmaceutical, and food and delivery businesses. As a result, the waste produced from these industries has skyrocketed. While the amounts of plastic waste generated by altered consumer patterns during the pandemic are as yet unknown, India’s reported biomedical waste generation increased by 17% over a year (2020–2021).

Globally, it is estimated that 4.4 to 15.1 million tons of pandemic-related plastic waste was generated as of August 2021, of which roughly 25,000 tons have entered the world’s oceans. A vast majority of this – roughly 87% – was found to come from hospitals in the form of plastic sheets, gloves, bottles, and syringes. While discarded face masks are the most noticeable, they, along with personal protective equipment (PPE) kits and packaging material account for only 12-13% of the pandemic-related plastic wastes currently polluting the world’s oceans.

Surge in biomedical waste during the pandemic

As per the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), India produced 47,200 tons of COVID-19-related biomedical waste between August 2020 and June 2021; these include PPE kits, face masks, gloves, needles, and other medical items contaminated with blood/body fluids. This is over and above the average 600 tons/day of biomedical waste that was being produced in pre-COVID times.

However, India’s waste management sector was and still is not fully prepared for this surge in biomedical waste. In September 2020, Mumbai’s already beleaguered waste management system was left reeling under a three-fold increase in COVID-related waste generation.

While the situation in Indian cities is not as dire as Wuhan’s – which produced 250 tons of biomedical waste/day during its pandemic peak between February and March 2020 – there are rising concerns about missing biomedical waste and underreporting of generated waste.

Despite CPCB’s assurance that India’s 198 biomedical waste treatment facilities (incinerators) could handle about 800 tons per day of biomedical waste, a lot of the improperly disposed waste is being spotted in landfills and as litter along roads, beaches, and open dumps near hospitals and crematoriums. In addition to this, PPE kits, masks, face shields, and gloves are often seen in household waste, not only in India, but in several other countries.

Masks sold at a railway station in Mumbai. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

According to a report published in October 2021 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the pandemic drove global PPE kit production up by 300%, while the production of medical masks went up by 1,200%. Pre-pandemic India produced no PPE kits; but between March and May 2020, it grew a PPE-production industry capable of producing nearly 450,000 thousand PPE kits/day. A lot of these masks and PPEs are ending up in India’s water bodies. Huge numbers of discarded plastic masks and gloves have been washing up on beaches and are being dredged up from ocean beds. In Assam, alarms over COVID-19 spread were raised when used PPE kits, blood pouches, and other hospital waste that had been openly dumped were seen floating on floodwaters. The CounterMEASURE project – an initiative by UNEP and the Government of Japan to tackle riverine and marine plastic litter – found that face masks were the most common biomedical waste littered along the Ganges and Mekong rivers in 2021.

For the first time in its 35 years of running the International Coastal Cleanup campaign, the Ocean Conservancy has had to add PPE (including face masks, gloves, and wipes) as a category in its list of beach litter. By late 2020, 94% of all volunteers had found PPE at cleanups in 70 out of 115 participating countries, and more than 62000 PPE items were found in the 1.5 million pounds (0.6 million kgs) of trash collected in beaches worldwide.

Read more: Pollution watchdog releases guidelines to handle COVID-19 waste

Changes in consumerism during the pandemic

But the dramatic appearance of discarded PPE in beach litter is only a part of the huge change in plastic trash flowing into the oceans since the pandemic began. The 2020 coastal cleanups also found unprecedented amounts of single-use food packaging items in the form of plastic cups, plates, grocery bags, and takeaway containers. Plastic food containers and cutlery were also the most-reported trash found in rivers and along shorelines. Takeaway containers were among the three most common types of plastic litter seen in the macro-plastic surveys conducted in 2021 along the Mekong and Ganges.

The rise in plastic food containers in oceans and rivers mirrors the rise in these plastics in municipal wastes. Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and the UK are only a few countries that have reported rising levels of plastic waste (between 20-200%) coming from increased use of food and grocery delivery services during and after the pandemic lockdowns.

Convenience powered single-use plastic consumption even before the pandemic; but concerns over safety and hygiene, especially due to COVID-19 have driven up their use. Shifts in the perception of food safety have also pushed consumers to prefer more packaged products. This was and even now, continues to be the norm in food servicing and delivery sectors.

In India, e-tailers and e-grocery services such as Amazon, Flipkart, BigBasket, and Grofers (now renamed Blinkit) have reported a two-to-threefold increase in order volumes, and overall e-commerce in 2020–2021 grew by 25%. Local governments in India busy fighting the pandemic had no resources left to enforce bans on single-use plastics such as disposable cups, cutlery, and plastic bags whose usage boomed in the wake of the first lockdown.

Policy rollbacks on the use of plastics have also contributed to this problem. In several countries, including UK, USA, South Korea, and Australia, bans on the use of disposable paper/plastic bags have been lifted or postponed. In India, the Indian government’s pledge to eliminate single-use plastic packaging by 2022 has hit a roadblock. This comes from the All-India Plastic Manufacturers’ Association (AIPMA) requesting that the deadline be pushed to 2023 to allow the industry to recover from the economic distress of the pandemic.

Problems in handling waste

“It’s not just waste generation that changed during and after the pandemic. Waste management has also been affected by lockdowns, mainly because there was a disconnect between collecting the waste and processing it,” says Mushtaq Memon, Regional Coordinator for Resource Efficiency (UNEP, Asia Pacific Regional Office) and Project Manager for SWITCH-Asia Regional Policy Advocacy Component.

India’s recycling sector, which is largely informal, was severely impacted by the pandemic and the lockdowns in a series of cascading events.

“During lockdowns, waste collection was considered an essential service, but downstream processes like recycling, were not,” says Rohini Malur, Communications Manager at Hasiru Dala, a Karnataka-based NGO that works to ensure livelihoods with dignity for waste pickers.

Waste management was impacted by pandemic-related lockdowns because there was a disconnect between collection and processing. Photo by P. Jeganathan/Wikimedia Commons.
A Municipal Solid Waste collector at work during the Covid-19 lockdown. Photo by P. Jeganathan/Wikimedia Commons.

Malur explains that the lockdowns were disastrous for the waste picker community and small recycling businesses because they were barred from doing the work that sustained them. Dry waste collection centers in Bengaluru were receiving waste and segregating it, but couldn’t sell to recyclers and cement kilns (that co-process non-recyclable dry waste), which resulted in two issues. One was a space crunch as waste was coming in but not going out, and the other was a loss of steady revenue.

“As part of our pandemic-relief work, Hasiru Dala had to arrange for aggregation centers where waste could be sent, because most dry waste collection centers don’t have much space but were mandated to remain functional. We also had to arrange for daily wage support for garbage collectors as their pay was intermittent and often delayed,” adds Malur.

Adding to these woes were the day-to-day dangers of handling contaminated household waste and facing social stigmas for providing an essential service. During the second wave, as COVID-19 cases rose, and hospitals became full, at-home quarantine and treatment for people with milder cases of COVID-19 became prevalent. This caused medical waste to wind up in household waste, a situation which most waste workers are untrained to handle. Unsurprisingly, many waste pickers and garbage collectors and their families contracted COVID-19. “These people were already struggling to make daily wage, and now they had medical bills piling up to add to their burdens,” says Malur.

As segregation of dry waste ground to a halt, junk shops shut down, and recycling units lay idle, the amount of trash sent to landfills shot up.

Post-COVID recovery in waste management

The waste management sector, especially recycling, is still struggling to recover from the effects of the pandemic. A report by PEMSEA (Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia) states that in India, less than 10% of plastic recyclers were operating during lockdowns; post-lockdown, although 20–70% of these recyclers are functional, they are operating at only 25–50% of their full capacity.

“India can move forward at an accelerated pace by taking a holistic approach, as a piecemeal approach may not be fruitful. The informal sector must be strengthened, supported, and formalized through policy, funding, and implementation. India could strengthen its waste management road map by incorporating a circular economy approach. For example, the ‘Swachh Bharat Mission’ focuses on cleanliness with ‘cleanliness drives’ useful in keeping streets clean; but, a holistic circular economy model to reduce trash proper recycling could work even better,” says Memon. “Like Japan and South Korea, India’s waste can become a resource. Indian policies could be the flagship in South Asia if they strengthen waste reduction, recycling systems, and adopt a circular economy approach to waste management,” he adds.

The Mavallipura landfill in Bengaluru. As the pandemic shut down junk shops and recycling units, the amount of trash sent to landfills soared. Photo by L. Shyamal/Wikimedia Commons.

Recently, the Government of India’s policy think-tank, NITI Aayog (National Institute for Transforming India), published a report titled Waste-wise Cities, in which successful attempts at managing different types of waste have been highlighted. Leh has been lauded for its technology-led use of solar power to process municipal solid waste. Several cities including Thiruvananthapuram have been upheld as models demonstrating the sustainability of decentralized waste management systems. Many cities including Panaji have been highlighted for their achievement of 100% waste segregation at source which lay at the heart of their ability to manage waste and generate income through composting, recycling, and production of refuse-derived fuels.


Banner image: A discarded mask found along the Mumbai coastline. Photo by Prasant Barik, Aahwahan Foundation.

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