Curbing plastic waste generation amid COVID-19 pandemic

The Union government’s mandate making it compulsory for everybody to wear face masks has made it an inevitable component of our attire. But the choice of masks is ours

By Anjali V Raj
Published: Monday 31 August 2020

It is undeniable that the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has turned the world topsy-turvy. It has become a chaotic place, and yet, has been moving at a slower pace. The pandemic has taught us to confine ourselves, breathe through filters and more importantly,  adjust to current limitations.

Under the weight of more pressing matters, we have chosen to turn a blind eye to the plastic waste production. While there have been reports of improvement in air and water quality in India, the same cannot be said about solid waste production. With the outbreak of COVID-19, the medical waste production in Wuhan, China boomed to 240 TPD (tonnes / day) from 40 TPD.

Indian scenario wouldn’t be any different since it has more COVID-19 cases than China. It has been reported that at the current rate of plastic production, consumption and management, there will be 113 per cent increase in annual plastic leakage into oceans by 2040 i.e. approximately 30 million metric tonnes of plastic will end up in the ocean per year.

The Union government is lenient towards the use and sale of plastics after the outbreak of the pandemic having more serious issues to attend to. Plastic carry bags are back in the market with some grocery stores supplying them to the customers. Pre-packed goods are dominating the supermarkets. Society has become too lazy again to carry their own grocery bags while shopping, unscrupulously taking advantage of this loophole.

E-commerce (especially online purchase of groceries) has escalated, contributing more to our solid waste crisis. Is it the fear and peril of the pandemic or is it just an excuse that we were waiting for?  

Personal protective equipment (PPE kits) comprising face shields, masks, gowns, shoe and head covers constitute a large proportion of medical waste. These are mainly single-use plastics used by frontline health workers. This falls under the category of biomedical waste and ends up in incinerators or landfills (deep burial).

We cannot compromise the use of PPE kits by risking the life of healthcare workers for the sake of waste reduction. But the community can play a vital role in the reduction of personal use of single-use non-woven polypropylene masks and N95 face masks.

These masks are used by healthcare workers as well as in a community setting as protection against droplet infection and splash of body fluids. The supplies of medical masks and PPE kits have been limited globally.  One reason to limit our use of medical-grade masks would be to prevent the shortage of masks and make it available for healthcare workers. Next reason would be to reduce our contribution towards biomedical waste.

The Union government’s mandate making it compulsory for everybody to wear face masks in the outdoor setting has made it an inevitable component of our attire. But the choice of mask is solely ours.

According to a report published in Emerging Infectious Diseases journal, the use of cloth masks with proper decontamination in a community setting is recommended to prevent community spread of infections by sick or asymptomatically infected persons. Since the filtration effectiveness, fit and performance of cloth masks are slightly inferior to medical masks and respirators, they are not mandated to frontline healthcare workers.

The general public, however, can use cloth masks, preferably multilayered, as a protection against respiratory infections with the knowledge about proper use of cloth masks i.e. decontamination of masks daily after use ideally with hot water and soap. 

The use of cloth masks in a community setting can reduce the current plastic waste generation to some extent. Moreover, bulk production of cloth masks are cost-effective and provides income to many self-help groups.

There are people striving to find solutions to current burning issues and reframe sustainability. Binish Desai, a social entrepreneur from Gujarat and popularly known as the recycle man of India, has been busy making bricks from discarded face masks during lockdown.

Professor R Vasudevan (the plastic man of India) is also relentless in his quest for innovative solutions to curb plastic waste production. Small changes in our post-pandemic lifestyle can create a huge difference in the country’s solid waste crisis. 

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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