Masks, gloves, PPEs and the plastic conundrum we need a solution to

PPEs have also become an additional threat to the oceans. A 2017 study found that around 90 per cent of all the plastic in the world’s oceans flows through just 10 rivers. Eight of these are in Asia, and the remaining two in Africa.
Masks, gloves, personal protective equipment (PPEs), body bags — the Covid-19 crisis has brought plastic into our lives like never before, threatening to undo years of progress on plastic pollution and triggering fresh health concerns.

Before the pandemic, a war was being waged against single-use plastics. Consumers were becoming mindful of the need to reduce its usage and corporations were criticised for being major contributors to plastic pollution. Many nations were considering a ban.

“The pandemic is causing a resurgence of plastic-linked waste in three forms: plastic components such as packaging of sanitiser dispensers; PPEs and masks; and restaurant takeaways,” says Muralee Thummarukudy, operations manager at the Crisis Management Branch of the United Nations Environment Programme. “In Singapore alone, 5.7 million residents generated an additional 1,334 tonnes of plastic waste from takeaway and delivery meals (during a two-month circuit-breaker period of stay-home curbs).”

The plastic ban in India, which had just started to take effect, has been substantially derailed given current needs and with enforcement systems looking the other way. And while many countries have encouraged or ordered their citizens to wear masks in public, few people seem to know, or care about, how these masks are supposed to be handled or disposed of. As a result, streets across the world are now littered with disposable masks and gloves.

“According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) guidelines on the handling, treatment and disposal of waste generated during treatment/diagnosis/quarantine of Covid-19 patients, used masks and gloves from households should be kept in a paper bag for at least 72 hours before being disposed of as general waste,” says waste management specialist Swati Singh Sambyal. “However, with low levels of segregation, residents hardly comply with this, mixing PPEs with other waste, which puts waste collectors at serious risk of infection. Also, many cities have only learnt to segregate wet and dry waste. The third bin — for hazardous household  waste — is missing from the picture.”

Sambyal explains that according to the CPCB guidelines, while PPEs should be incinerated, biomedical and other hazardous waste from quarantined households should be collected by the municipal body and handed over to the common biomedical waste treatment facilities. “However, it has been observed that many such facilities are running beyond their capacity and have no space to take in more waste.”

Few people seem to know how these masks are supposed to be handled or disposed of. As a result, streets across the world are now littered with disposable masks and gloves.
Researchers estimate that over 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the early 1950s. About 60 per cent of it has ended up either in landfills or in the natural environment. Only 9 per cent of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled, according to a study — “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made — published in Science Advances in 2017. If current trends continue, our oceans will end up with more plastic than fish by 2050, cautions a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum.

“Their inertness to viruses and bacteria, easy availability, affordability and ability to be a safe packaging material have brought plastics into our lives at the scale and speed that we have witnessed,” says Vijay G Habbu, adjunct professor, Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai.

PPEs have also become an additional threat to the oceans. A 2017 study found that around 90 per cent of all the plastic in the world’s oceans flows through just 10 rivers. Eight of these are in Asia, and the remaining two in Africa.

“There is potential of the destruction of habitat (such as corals or seagrasses), physical choking of marine life and also the accumulation of microplastics,” says Muralee. “Already, some 8 million tonnes of plastics enter our oceans every year, adding to the estimated 150 million tonnes already circulating in marine environments. Unmanaged waste will only make the situation worse.”

Adding to the concern is that India does not have any standards for recycling. And most recycled plastics cannot be used for food-grade packaging — it is used in lower scale applications, say Sambyal. “For instance, a PET bottle does not get recycled to PET, but into a fibre that is then used to make shirts, shoes or jackets.”

However, recycling in India is also cheaper, due to poverty. Recycling of plastics usually involves “downcycling” into lower-quality products. “About 3,500 organised and over 4,000 unorganised recycling units are in operation across India, employing over 600,000 people directly,” says Sambyal. “The pandemic has impacted the recycling sector, with many workers losing their jobs or returning to their hometowns due to the lockdowns.”

For those converting polymers into plastic items, it is a mixed situation, says Habbu. The business of plastic packaging has got a reprieve and those making PPEs are having a field day. “The government must convert this into a win-win situation. Make it mandatory for PPEs to be made from recycled plastics,” Habbu says. The governments, regulators, and the media, he adds, must also start highlighting the problems of littering and appeal to people’s sensitivities.

The government, too, must bring clarity in its Biomedical Waste Rules, 2016 on the disposal mechanism for plastics-based items that have come in contact with infected (or suspected) patients or caregivers. The local administrations must ensure that yellow bins (for disposal of items in contact with infected persons) and blue bins (for disposal of normal plastics, according to the Plastics Waste Management Rules, 2016) are prominently placed at frequent distances.

“Hospital waste was segregated very carefully even before the pandemic,” says Aastha Choudhary, an intern at the Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi. “But for the general public, the colour of the bin doesn’t mean anything. I don’t think they would throw their gloves in the red bin and their mask in yellow. It is the same with sanitary napkins and tampons. Those are biomedical waste too. But don’t we just throw them with the general waste?”

One thing is clear, cities that are segregating right are also more effective in their Covid-19 responses. “Look at Bengaluru, cities in Kerala, Panchgani in Maharashtra, Ambikapur in Chhattisgarh, Panaji, Mysuru. All have better waste management on the ground, with a focus on segregation,” says Sambyal. “In all these cities, PPEs are collected and handed over separately. Many have imposed strict fines and penalties for non-segregation.”

It is essential to acknowledge that we live in a new and unfamiliar reality. Managing the increase in single-use plastics has today taken a backseat and will remain a challenge for governments. So while the world is fighting the coronavirus every day, it is simultaneously triggering a new public health crisis, one that vaccines and lockdowns cannot fix.



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