Across Brazil, recycling plants stopped operating for months. In Uganda, a junkyard is short on reusable plastic. And in Indonesia’s capital, disposable gloves and face shields are piling up at the mouth of a river.
The increasing consumption of plastics and packaging during the pandemic has created mountains of garbage. but fear COVID-19 Work at recycling facilities has come to a halt, with some of the reusable material being junked or burned.
At the same time, high amounts of personal protective equipment, or PPE, have been misclassified as hazardous, solid-waste experts. That material is often not allowed to go into the normal dustbin, so much of it is dumped in burn pits or as garbage.
One problem with both cases, say experts, is the initial fear—that coronavirus Can spread easily through surfaces – has created a difficult stigma to handle perfectly safe waste. Many scientists and government agencies have since found that the fear of surface transmission had grown wildly. But old habits die hard, especially in countries where garbage disposal guidelines haven’t been updated and officials are still busy fighting new outbreaks.
“Since there is no route of transmission through recycling, say, we are still burning things instead of recycling because people are scared” of surface transmission, said Anne Woolridge, who is the international director for health care waste. Leads a working group on the Solid Waste Association “You try to educate the entire world population in less than a year. It’s impossible.”
As far as PPE is concerned, Woolridge said, before the pandemic it was unthinkable to see gloves and masks around the world. “But because everyone is saying anything with the pandemic is a medical waste, it puts a strain on the system,” she said.
Recycling rates around the world fell sharply last year, as demand from manufacturers plummeted. In many countries where the recycling industry still operates by hand sorting rather than machines, in-person work was suspended over fears related to the virus.
For example, in Brazil, according to Abrelepay, a national association of sanitation companies, the production of recyclable materials in cities grew 25% in 2020 mainly due to an increase in online shopping. But recycling programs in many cities suspended operations for several months anyway, citing fears of surface transmission.
This had obvious human and environmental costs. A recent study found that during the suspension period, at least 16,000 tons less recycled material than usual was in circulation, representing an economic loss of about $1.2 million per month for waste picker unions.
Another study said the one-month suspension was a missed opportunity to save on the amount of electricity used by more than 152,000 households.
“The suspension exposed the weaknesses of our system,” said Lian Nakada, a co-author of the second paper and a researcher at the University of Campinas. She and her husband stored the recyclables at home for months to avoid throwing it away inappropriately, but they were the exception.
a global division
James Michelson, solid-waste expert at International Finance Corp, said recycling rates in developed economies are now returning to pre-COVID levels.
“The numbers are going back to normal, and we’re moving away from a post-COVID discussion of, ‘Okay, let’s get back to circularity, sustainability, plastic recycling,'” Michelson said.
But in countries where recycling is driven by informal collectors, he said, lockdowns and outbreaks are still causing major disruptions.
Before the recent Covid outbreak in Kampala, Uganda, hundreds of people gathered at city dumps to collect plastic. They would then sell the plastic to middlemen, who later sold it to recycling companies.
But when the country went under lockdown this summer, restrictions on movement prevented trucks from picking up garbage in some districts. Surface transmission was also feared; Officials said that Covid was on the rise as people were not washing their hands.
As of this month, only one-third of the usual number of garbage collectors were at Kampala city dumps, said Luke Mugerwa, a representative of a local picker’s group. Some of the manufacturers who came in search of recovered plastic were out of luck.
“Every day, they are always looking to buy plastics,” Mugerwa said. “There is demand, but there is little supply.”
dissemination of PPE
Another challenge is the PPE used which has flooded the world since the early days of the pandemic. About 8 million metric tons of plastic already enter the ocean each year, and experts fear that the use of PPE and other litter could make that situation worse.
Most PPE is not dangerous, but many countries still classify it as such, Michelson said. This means that used gloves and masks are often actually lumped together with hazardous medical waste and either treated at great expense – a waste of money – or disposed of in other ways.
“If you don’t have a high amount of infrastructure behind your hospitals in these areas, they’re going to set it on fire,” Woolridge said.
The United Nations Environment Program estimated last year that health care facilities around the world were producing approximately 7.5 pounds of COVID-related medical waste per person per day. It said that in Jakarta, Indonesia and four other Asian metropolises, the overall health care waste disposal rate has increased by nearly 500 percent.
Some of that waste inevitably ends up as litter.
In the Indonesian capital, pre-pandemic pollution surveys of a local river estuary by the Research Center for Oceanography did not reveal much PPE. But a recent survey found that equipment such as masks, face shields, gloves and hazmat suits are responsible for about 15% of pollution.
“Even in Jakarta, which has the country’s largest budget for environmental management, waste is still leaking into the environment,” said Muhammad Reza Cordova, a scientist involved in the river survey. “What about other areas with smaller budgets?”
hunt for syringe
An emerging concern is that, as the flood of materials creates new pressure on local officials, syringes and other really dangerous medical waste could end up in the wrong places.
In the world’s poorest countries, this would pose a health risk to waste pickers. For example, Bangladesh already has thousands of people scavenging in landfills. But only three or four of the country’s 64 districts have facilities to safely dispose of used syringes, said Mustafizur Rahman, a solid waste expert in the capital Dhaka.
“These landfills aren’t safe or sanitary, so it’s really about environmental health and safety measures,” said Rahman, a professor of environmental science at Jahangirnagar University.
And since syringes and vaccine vials are a valuable commodity on the black market, criminal gangs have an incentive to steal vaccination gear and illegally resell it into the health care system.