Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the world was already battling plastic pollution and the reckless dumping of waste.
The United Nations declared plastic pollution a global crisis two years ago and the waste burden is likely to grow amid the rapid rise in the use of Covid-19-related personal protective equipment (PPE), much of which is disposable.
“While it is widely reported that lockdown has led to cleaner air and water and a reduction in resource consumption and pollution overall, the Covid-19 pandemic has necessitated an upsurge in the use and manufacture of PPE for citizens to comply with new regulations, patients and healthcare workers alike,” says waste management company Averda sustainability head Brindha Roberts.
“The public and business need to know that plastic PPE cannot be disposed of alongside normal plastic items which we would recycle,” she adds.
Nonwoven masks, gloves, aprons and gowns are all examples of PPE that is normally single-use and thereafter discarded as a measure to protect against the spread of infection and diseases.
These need to be handled as infectious waste and, if not disposed of with care, pose a contamination risk to others who are either handling the waste or waste pickers that live off our landfills and dumps.
Roberts advises that all items, from PPE to used tissues, be double-bagged before throwing them away, keeping them separate from recyclable waste.
Businesses are also encouraged to seek guidance from professional waste management service providers, especially those which supply medical waste bins. These companies collect and dispose of the waste safely when the bins are full.
“We have identified the hazards this waste stream poses to the health and safety of our employees and address the risk by consistently reviewing and adjusting our processes as we learn more about Covid-19," Roberts says.
Another important consideration, she adds, is to look at the different options that are available for dealing with PPE waste and which of these options are least harmful and, under which circumstances, such as incineration or treatment before disposal.
“It is about the balance between health and safety and environmental concerns created by this waste stream.”
Roberts explains that, in South Africa, plastic PPE could be recycled but would need to first be disinfected. This can be achieved through an electrothermal deactivation process – once this is completed, recyclable materials could be returned to the economy instead of being lost to hazardous landfill sites.
South Africa is fortunate that it has not yet seen the large volumes of plastic medical waste in public spaces, such as was seen on beaches in Europe. This is mostly because South Africans have tended to use reusable cloth masks as opposed to single-use plastic options, Averda points out.
“That does not mean we should not take care in how we dispose of our PPE waste or become complacent,” warns Roberts.
“The Covid-19 pandemic is by far the direst crisis in living memory. The consequences on the environment for generations to come should not be overlooked. The health of people and planet are intrinsically connected,” she concludes.