Waste management in COVID times

It was a humid morning with overhanging clouds. I was on my way to the park in my colony, when I saw Tulsi dragging his tricycle and bringing it to a stop in front of our 4-floor apartment house from where he had to collect solid waste and take it to the Dalao. I asked him in Hindi through my mask ‘Namaste Tulsi, how is everything going?’ ‘Are you able to do the waste collection smoothly?’ Tulsi was adjusting his gloves and was about to enter the gate to collect the waste left by the occupants on the ground floor. He replied ‘Namaste Madam, I am collecting from all houses but as you can see the bags have mixed waste and are smelling and leaking constantly but what can I do? I have to take them, put them in the tricycle and segregate them’. ‘What happened? I thought people had started segregating into dry and wet waste at least. You told me a couple of months ago, waste segregation was improving?’ ‘True, it had started improving but once this COVID started, everyone has started discarding everything together in the same bag once again’, Tulsi lamented.

This may be true in many residential areas in Delhi, NCR cities and many parts of the country as well. Whether it is the panic due to COVID 19 disease or a mere excuse not to exert the least bit to segregate their waste at source, the pandemic has pushed back some of the advances made before COVID, for proper management of solid waste in our cities. However, there are also some good examples where citizens and RWAs have bounced back and addressed the issue of managing COVID and non-COVID waste separately, thereby setting an example for others to follow and saved the situation of waste management, going from bad to worse.

Current practices in waste management

In the pre-COVID times, implementation of the various Waste management Rules in the country was being carried out as part of the Swachh Bharat Mission both urban and rural. Solid waste, plastics, e waste, construction and demolition waste etc., regulated by different Rules under the Environment Protection Act 1986 were being implemented. The focus was on reducing wastage and total quantity of waste by practicing sustainable consumption and waste segregation at source so that most of the waste can be designated as a resource and hence processed into a useful product for use and consumption.

 According to the SWM Rules 2016 and the SBM guidelines, food waste from all households and institutions should be processed through anaerobic digestion or by composting so that it is not required to be transported long distances for processing or to be dumped in landfills. This is generally colour coded green. Similarly, non-biodegradable waste such as paper, plastics, glass, metal, rubber and others such multi-layered packaging (MLP) are to be kept separately and given to the waste collector for recycling. This is generally colour coded as blue with a recycling symbol on it.

Generally sanitary napkins and diapers are expected to be wrapped in paper, marked with a red dot or cross so that the waste workers can recognize them to be potentially infectious in nature and finally only chemicals, used batteries, paints, CFLs, tubelights and pesticide containers are to be put in black bags to be given to waste collectors as domestic hazardous waste. In fact there are several cities like Bengaluru and others who have now started collecting home healthcare waste including sanitary napkins, diapers, waste from patients who are being treated in homes and are diverted to the Common Biomedical Waste Management Facilities (CBWTFs) for appropriate treatment like the waste from healthcare institutions in separate colour coded categories. This is what needs to be done all over the country since this is what is recommended in the SWM Rules 2016 and guidelines

Although, COVID times cannot be said to affect these basic principles of either source segregation or recycling and reprocessing, the lack of understanding and panic due to the contagious spread of the COVID 19 disease in urban and rural areas, the use of single use plastics has increased enormously. Some of this comprise the PPEs used for protecting workers and non-patient residents in the COVID19 isolation homes which has increased manifold. Many are also from cremation yards and burial grounds made worse by discarding these items with complete disregard for the safety of others as well as for the environment. Although the use of these PPE kits from the healthcare establishments, quarantine centres, isolation homes, crematoria and burial grounds, where the use of these single use kits can be considered necessary, it is estimated that of the 101 tonnes per day of waste generated from COVID activities, almost 40-50% is generated more due to panic or inadequate information than actual need. Waste from residential and commercial areas has increased due to residents reverting to no segregation of waste at source. Indiscriminate disposal of waste such as used masks, gloves, PPEs, not only pose risk of infection but also cause abhorrence at the sight.

Recommended waste management practices during COVID times

Firstly, it is very important to observe all practices of segregation at source in our homes and other institutions whether there are patients in them or not. In fact, along with observing sanitization and personal hygiene like washing hands repeatedly, it is important to keep the segregated waste whether generated by the patient or by other occupants of the house in a safe manner and hand over the right category to the right management stream.

For instance if the patient is given food that is fully cooked and processed so that there is almost no left-over food, that would be the best. However, small amounts of left-over food can easily be composted in home composters, maybe a separate one could be kept for the patient if required. Other waste such as plastics or single use masks, gloves, tissues, should be kept for three days (72 hours), preferably in newspaper paper and then given along with other such non-biodegradable waste to the waste collectors. However, all waste that is of biomedical or home healthcare in nature, including diapers of patients, including PPEs should be placed in yellow bags provided by the ULB and given to the waste collectors who come for biomedical/ home healthcare waste, which is transported to the designated CBWTF by respective ULBs.

Some good examples of such models, which have helped in curbing excess waste reaching the CBWTFs or the landfills can be seen in several colonies in Gurugram. Their strategy is seen below:

In these examples, citizens and RWAs have approached the residents and made fliers, localised guidelines based on the CPCB guidelines, trained waste workers to don and doff PPE suits, collect and compost the food waste from homes, deposit all non-biodegradable including those from quarantine homes after segregation and keeping in paper for 72 hours in receptacles meant for recycling. They don’t collect biomedical waste from COVID isolation homes, for which MCG sends a designated waste collector with yellow bags which is then transported to CBWTFs. Other domestic hazardous and e-waste are deposited by residents at designated spots as was done before.

We can say that this initiative of some of the RWAs and companies has helped in curtailing the waste situation from spiralling out of control and also shown the correct way to do waste management even during unprecedented times such as the COVID pandemic time we are witnessing.

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