Covid-19 triggers a new environmental menace

IT is common knowledge that waste eventually finds its way to the dams and rivers which people rely on for potable water.Because the water bodies are downstream, litter will eventually drift in that direction if it is not discarded properly.

CHIPA GONDITII/LISA TAZVIINGA.

But as the Covid-19 crisis slowly generates a new kind of waste comprising disposable face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) items, it is posing new problems.

The flood of PPE could pose immediate danger to human beings, as well as wildlife and long-term plastic pollution and contamination of food supplies.It is already emerging as a widespread problem, as masks, latex gloves and bottles of hand sanitiser can be seen on pavements, dumpsites and everywhere else.

While the volume of improperly disposed PPE items is not yet overwhelming, environmentalists say early anecdotal and visual observations have caused concern.
As such, a new term — mass pollution — is increasingly gaining currency around the world since the emergence of Covid-19 in December last year.

Mentioning this type of pollution a year ago would have seemed odd, but ever since the wearing of masks in public was made mandatory, it has emerged as a serious environmental threat.

Once used, face masks are being disposed of everywhere, from roadsides and retail parking lots to water bodies.High carbon emissions and the spike of Covid-19 cases are some of the problems that could emanate from the improper disposal of the pandemic’s waste such as gloves and masks.

Nations around the world are grappling with the question of how to manage the emerging stream of waste.Zimbabwe has come up with guidelines on the proper disposal of this new waste through a new policy known as Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for SARS-COV-2 (Covid-19) Infectious Waste Management, which was pioneered by the Ministry of Health and Child Care and the Environment Management Agency (Ema) to offer safe practices for dealing with infectious waste in health facilities.

The document, seen by the Zimbabwe Independent, provides general guidelines for the management of used masks and gloves by various institutions, clearly outlining how to deal with waste storage, transportation and disposal.

Although the document has been drafted, citizens are yet to be educated on this important issue.According to the document, the authorities estimate that more than 4,2 million masks will end up in our environment and water bodies daily, posing potential health and ecological disaster.

“The current worldwide Covid-19 pandemic has brought about emerging issues and challenges in waste generation and management countrywide. The pandemic has seen a significant increase in the use of disposable single-use personal protective equipment (PPE), particularly masks and gloves in areas that have not traditionally required the use of such.

The obtaining scenario has resulted in the transformation of the formerly institutionalised clinical or medical waste being found at household level globally with Zimbabwe being no exception,” the document reads.

This type of waste has serious far-reaching negative implications on the environment and human health if not properly handled and disposed of.
The document further states that the nature of waste being dumped in undesignated areas does not only threaten the environment but also poses a risk to waste pickers.

“Masks and gloves are increasingly becoming common street trash and they qualify into the classification of hazardous waste and cannot be treated as normal garbage. This is an additional complexity to the management of the Covid-19 as it poses a risk to waste pickers. Furthermore, the once-off-use nature of most of the PPE makes their proper disposal critical during this pandemic and beyond until the world fully recovers.”

“All waste generated in screening and caring for Covid-19 patients is highly infectious and should therefore be segregated and safely disposed of according to the SOP. This will reduce the risk of transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to health care workers, patients and visitors and minimise the risk of injury associated with waste handling,” the document further reads.

Ema publicity manager Amkela Sidange warned that if not properly disposed of, the waste could contribute to the spread of the virus.

“Environmental pollution resulting in loss of aesthetic value, clogging of storm drains when it rains, pollution of water as residual waste swept into water bodies and above all public health issue as waste can instead further transmit the virus to waste pickers and sweepers ensuring further contamination,” Sidange said.

She highlighted that there were efforts underway to educate the public on the SOPs.

“Currently working on raising awareness to the public on the SOPs, in Harare we are working with ZimSunshine Group, City of Harare and Ministry of Health to unpack the guidelines to the public,” she said.

Young Volunteers for Environment in Zimbabwe executive director Lauretta Marembo said it was important to properly dispose of Covid-19 waste so as to keep the environment clean.

“The waste must be properly disposed of so that we reduce water contamination and protect our water resources, this will also help to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and create a safe environment for human, animal and aquatic life,” Marembo said.

She added: “Legislation should be put forward by the government on proper disposition of waste, binding laws on the responsibilities of local authorities to deliver such laws. And also there should be awareness on the dangers posed by the improper disposal and to also encourage other forms of disposal such as recycling.”

According to the World Health Organisation, the virus is primarily spread by tiny droplets released from the nose and mouth when someone with Covid-19 coughs, sneezes or speaks.

These droplets can survive on surfaces for up to 72 hours. While touching a contaminated surface is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, it does pose a danger, especially in Africa, where many businesses and households find it difficult to access disinfectants or waste management services and where workers in the informal sector lack adequate sanitary equipment. As such, discarded gloves and masks pose a high risk due to their relatively long exposure to droplets.

Health experts say to prevent contamination, all protective and disinfecting waste should be separated from general consumer waste (food waste, plastic items, paper, and cardboard) by using separate bins and liners and incinerated thereafter.

However, incineration is an expensive process and this implies it is not normally considered for poor countries like Zimbabwe.