Battling the twin challenges of surging pandemic and medical waste

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April 11, 2021 1:00 AM

Vaccine rollout is essential to curb the spread of the virus, but responsibly discarding syringes and needles is also important for the planet’s health

Environmentalists fear negative consequences for wildlife, as the pandemic poses difficult short-term choices between health and the environment. The contaminated plastic, cloth and latex could even end up in the waterways, blocking oceans.Environmentalists fear negative consequences for wildlife, as the pandemic poses difficult short-term choices between health and the environment. The contaminated plastic, cloth and latex could even end up in the waterways, blocking oceans.

In the fight against climate change, countries across the world are banning plastic bags and cups to eliminate single-use plastic. Recently, the environment ministry in India also proposed a three-phase ban on single-use plastic by 2022 under the draft Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules, 2021.

Last year, Financial Express on Sunday wrote about how the coronavirus crisis introduced the world to plastic in personal protective equipment (PPE) kits, which include goggles, face shields, masks, gloves, coveralls or gowns, head and shoe covers. All these are highly beneficial in reducing the risk of the person using them from contracting an infection, but it’s important to dispose them properly.

A year has gone by since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. The scale of the upheaval since then is difficult to capture, but some extraordinary numbers tell the tale: according to Our World In Data, a scientific online publication that focuses on large global problems such as poverty, disease, hunger, climate change, war, existential risks and inequality, more than 122 million cases of Covid-19 have been reported worldwide, with more than 2.7 million deaths. Around 94.5 million vaccine doses have been administered so far globally.

It’s true that vaccine management is essential to curb the spread of the virus, but—just like PPE kits—discarding syringes and needles from vaccines is also important for effective waste management. WHO guidelines for planners and managers state that inadequate management of wastes generated by immunisation activities, such as sharps and infectious non-sharp wastes, can cause direct negative health impacts and pollution on the community working during and after the campaign, causing indirect health effects in the community and impacting the environment.

Practical guidelines like a strategy for clarification purposes and a checklist of basic actions to cope with waste created during immunisation activities is essential. Vaccine waste goes in sharp containers and is picked up from healthcare facilities and transported to the processing centre to be sanitised with high-pressure steam in a machine before it’s sent to the landfill alongside other trash. If it isn’t picked up by a disposal company, it adds volume to the already piled up waste, a challenge for healthcare facilities with no space.

Through organised drives like those done by staffers at Pune’s Common Bio-Medical Waste Treatment Facilities (CBWTF), over 1,100 tonnes of Covid-related waste from public and private hospitals has been collected and disposed of in the last 11 months. The operation has been outsourced to Passco Environmental Solutions, a private firm contracted by Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad municipal corporations. From 250 kg of Covid-19-related waste every day since last year to 6,000 kg per day during the month of July when the virus was spreading in the city at a very fast rate, over a dozen vans collected the biomedical garbage every day and transferred it to the facilities, says a news report in The Indian Express.

Environmentalists fear negative consequences for wildlife, as the pandemic poses difficult short-term choices between health and the environment. The contaminated plastic, cloth and latex could even end up in the waterways, blocking oceans.

Gurpreet Sandhu, president, Council for Healthcare and Pharma, a global thinktank that advocates the development of sustainable health systems, finds that India’s public healthcare system is among the best equipped to handle large-scale vaccination programmes.“We have over the years successfully run the largest universal immunisation programme in the world, vaccinating over 26.5 million infants a year for a number of diseases.

The country also vaccinates over 29 million pregnant women annually for tetanus. This has helped to hone its capacity for large-scale vaccination efforts. While the Covid vaccination drive is humongous by any yardstick, there are well-laid protocols and stringent guidelines for storage and disposal of medical waste at the hospital level. To minimise the medical waste likely to be generated, only multi-dose vials have been distributed to medical establishments. The waste generated is bagged and marked as per best practice before it is removed and safely disposed by authorised and licenced third-party vendors having the capability and wherewithal to safely manage medical waste. The health and municipal authorities too have redoubled their efforts to oversee and manage the colossal effort underway. The track-and-trace mechanisms deployed have made the system geared to deal with the exigencies generated by the scale of the effort.”

While it’s tough to say exactly how much plastic is in the ocean, scientists think about 8 million metric tonnes of plastic enters the ocean every year. That’s the weight of nearly 90 aircraft carriers, as per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US Department of Commerce.

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