Waste in the Times of Corona
The pollution levels are lower than ever in recent history. The pollution indices in Delhi are incredibly actually within the ‘satisfactory’ level. This would have been unbelievable just a few months ago. That might make one think that the environment is improving and stabilising. Well, things are not as hunky-dory as they are made out to be.
Escalating Medical Waste
With the COVID-19 pandemic still not refusing to abate, the problem of bio-medical waste is bigger than ever. Wuhan, the epicentre of the pandemic is now producing up to six times more waste than average. In fact, China had to build a medical waste disposal centre in Wuhan just because of COVID-19.
Dealing with bio-medical waste has never been easy. India came up with its own Bio-Medical Waste Management Rules in 2016 but maintaining extra caution, the Central Pollution Control Board released guidelines for handling, treating and safely disposing of biomedical waste generated during dealing with patients suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19.
Such waste has to be collected and sealed in double-layered bags of plastic. In case of suspected patients at home, waste should be collected separately in yellow bags and handed over to authorised waste collectors engaged by the local bodies. These guidelines seem to exist more on paper than in practical life.
Plastic is a precious commodity. Yes, you read it right. It has a huge number of advantages. It is medically safe, strong, lasts long and yet is light in weight. One could say that this pandemic is a time when it has truly served its purpose.
People have been relying on masks and gloves to protect themselves from the coronavirus. Yet, one solution might be causing another problem. Whenever we used to talk about reducing our plastic consumption we generally skimmed over plastic consumed in the medical industry. This is usually because so much of it was outside our control.
The medicines are manufactured and packaged in a certain way in a layer of plastic so that their efficacy is not reduced over time. Also, blood bags, casts etc. are essential items with no practical alternatives. With the pandemic, this waste generated has surged dramatically.
There are warnings that there could be more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean Sea!
Economic activity screeched to a halt when COVID-19 struck the world. These caused a huge demand-supply gap which made oil prices plummet. An inadvertent effect of this was plastics became cheaper as, after all, they are also a byproduct of the petroleum industry. Most of the momentum attained by the no-plastic and sustainability movements in making businesses go for alternatives was lost.
Recycling was never a profitable option but the low prices at which you can get virgin plastic now is going to make the recycling industry suffer even more.
In fact, a lot of oil companies are making huge investments in the plastic industry as a way to hedge their risks as the world is shifting away from fossil fuels. These industries are also trying to exploit the panic caused by this pandemic by casting their own services as ‘essential’. The US Department of Homeland Security has already declared so.
The Apathy we Have for Waste Workers
What people are oblivious to is that most of our waste is still handled by humans, especially in a country like India. Usually, the waste is picked up by bare hands. Our doctors are decked in PPE costumes which look little different from space suits, but for our waste workers, even a pair of gloves is a luxury. They are not provided with regular wages and talking about their medical safety and insurance would elicit laughter and disbelief in some circles.
The truth is that the waste workers are now at a huge risk of contracting COVID-19 especially with the huge number of asymptomatic cases. Who handles all the masks thrown away on the street, a thing which we Indians are notorious for? None other than waste workers and yet they remain some of the most disadvantaged people in India. Due to the old belief in ‘purity and pollution’ and the culture it has created these people are shunned because they do ‘dirty’ work. The entrenched casteism in our society complicates the problem even further.
Social Distancing and its Effects
The pandemic has also halted the business of most Kirana stores: the hallmark of desi zero waste. On other days, one could go to a Kirana store, peruse the grains and lentils lying in gunny bags and ask them to be packed into their own bags.
This is how most desi zero waste enthusiasts, including me, bought our groceries. With the lockdown, we couldn’t actually do this.
Lo and behold, groceries started to be delivered in glittering plastic. Some did this also under the impression that a plastic cover would save them from the infection. However, there is little evidence to show plastic bags are a safer option, at least cloth bags can be washed. In fact, a study indicates that the coronavirus might actually persist longer on plastics than on other materials. Paper and cardboard fare much better than plastic. So much so that a Delhi hospital switched to cardboard 4 beds overnight!
What do you think the antidote to plastic waste is? Well, in my opinion, it is a community working together. Back when I was a kid, we didn’t have to buy idli batter and spices from a shelf on the supermarket.
Instead, we used to get it from the local mill who used to grind fresh idli and dosa batter every day. Similarly, we used to get our spices from the nearby Mahila Udyog. Now we get our goods shipped from the other end of the world, which obviously requires packaging of some sort, not to mention huge greenhouse gases created along the way.
Alas, in these times of social distancing, whatever semblance of the community we had was completely dispersed and lost. There is no other option but to buy stuff from supermarkets or online stores. The lucky have a few neighbourhood shops open. No more libraries, no more lending our mixer grinder to the neighbour, no more sharing dumbbells in the gym. After many months of borrowing working out gear from my neighbours, I had to finally get my own which, unfortunately, generated some amount of waste.
I’ve noticed that people are also buying stuff which makes their life a little bit easier. With no more house help and having to look after the kids as well as working from home people are under a lot of pressure. A lot of that is cheap plastic stuff, which is the worst part.
I always used to scorn at the germophobes (people with an extreme fear of germs and an obsession with cleanliness). I have no shame in accepting that I follow the 5-second rule. Yet, this is the time to emulate the germophobes. Heck, I think I might be turning into one!
I have cloth masks which I wash and re-use. There is also no need to use plastic gloves unless you are dealing with people who have contracted the disease. Many health experts have come together to sign a statement 5 that reassures retailers and consumers that reusable systems can be utilised safely during the pandemic by employing basic hygiene.
Household disinfectants have indeed been proven effective at disinfecting hard surfaces. To look at the silver lining, one way to beat the consumerist trap is to learn some skills and build an arsenal against the plastic trap. I started quite small: I learnt how to peel a pineapple. Before, if I wanted to eat a pineapple I had no option other than to buy pineapple pieces in those transparent plastic clamshells. Cutting an entire pineapple myself always seemed so intimidating.
But the lockdown gave me no other option, I looked for some videos online and got down to business. Et voila, I managed to peel and slice the pineapple, all my fingers intact! Then I moved on to slightly complex stuff, I baked my first loaf of bread from scratch! I’m even grateful for my quarantine skills for it has made me more creative. I now understand that I don’t need new stuff to be happy, just hugs from the people I love.
There are quite a few factors behind making the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the most elementary reasons were man’s insistence on cutting down forests for ‘development’ purposes. This increased the proximity of humans to wild animals leading to a high probability of passing on zoonotic diseases. Maybe if we actually respected the planet and its beings, we would not be facing such a situation today.
Yet, this is also a dress rehearsal for climate change. With the locust attacks and multiple supercyclones hitting close home, none of us have to look into our textbooks searching for climate change, we can witness it with our own eyes. We can’t keep making excuses, it is time we took action. How we deal with this crisis will teach us how to deal with the next.
(The views expressed in the article are the author’s own. Let Me Breathe neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
Suriti is a writer, lawyer and sustainability warrior. She can be found on Instagram (@thekeeperofthetrees) and blogs at The Keeper of the TreesKnow More