How do we dispose of PPE kits? Beating the ‘cradle to grave’ cycle and plastic pollution

By: Sahil Sharma

India is undergoing a medical crisis as the country grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic. Every day, the cases of infection are increasing and the death toll mounts. It has been more than a year since the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus as a pandemic. 

Image Credits: Javed Anees/Wikimedia Commons

Medical staff and emergency responders are on the brink of exhaustion, yet they continue to fight the deadly virus. In this fight, the uniform of the emergency responders, the medical staff and caregivers is the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kit. And while it has kept many infections at bay, it continues to pose another risk – that of plastic pollution. Where does the PPE kit end up? A landfill (if not disposed of properly) or an incinerator. 

As per a report by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in the National Green Tribunal, India generates about 101 Metric Tonnes per day (MT/day) of COVID-19 related biomedical waste. This quantity is in addition to the normal biomedical waste generation of about 609 MT/day.

Disposing these PPE kits has posed a big environmental challenge for civic bodies across the country. 

Three end-of-life disposal methods are cited by a study titled Sustainable Solution for PPE disposal through LCA Approach. These include — centralized incineration, decentralized incineration and landfills. LCA stands for life cycle assessment. The study suggests that the decentralized method will reduce multiple contact points who handle the infected PPE kits and perhaps that is the best possible solution for us.

Here’s how you can dispose of these PPE kits to ensure minimum pollution:

On-site Incineration

The method of decentralized incineration will reduce multiple contact points who handle the infected PPE kits.

Under the current centralized system, discarded PPE kits are transported to far-off incinerators, thereby involving more people in handling the waste and causing more vehicular pollution.

Demarking the medical waste clearly

The Government of India Biomedical Waste Management (BWM) Rules, 2016 clearly states that syringes and needles are thrown into red and white coloured bags, respectively, at healthcare centres.

The red-coloured bag is for contaminated but recyclable waste such as intravenous tubes, catheters, bottles, urine bags, syringes (without needles), and gloves. 

The white one is a tamper-proof container for “sharps”, or sharp metal medical equipment such as the needle of a syringe. 

Waste burial

The medical waste can also be buried into a pit or a facility for sharp compression. As per the 2016 BWM rules, a pit can be circular or rectangular, and should be lined with cement-plastered brick masonry or concrete rings. Once the pit is full, it should be sealed completely to finish the process of the burial.

Why are we worried?

The pandemic poses difficult short-term choices between health and the environment. Environmentalists fear negative consequences of the mounting plastic waste being generated that is affecting our wildlife. The list of contaminated plastic is endless from plastic masks, gloves, sanitiser bottles, to plastic waste even hazardous waste being generated from the immunisation drive. That’s tonnes of plastic, cloth and latex that has a possibility of ending up in the waterways, blocking oceans or choking our skies as they burn in incinerators.

What do we need? 

If the PPE kits, among other pandemic plastic, aren’t picked up by a disposal company, it adds volume to the already piled up waste. So, a practical checklist of basic actions to cope with waste created during the pandemic is absolutely essential. What we truly need is to minimize the carbon footprint being generated from disposing of PPE kits and their subsequent impact on the environment.

Sahil Sharma

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