COVID-19: How bio-medical waste poses challenges to urban solid waste management system

With the potential onset of the third wave, it is important to prioritise a separate collection of infectious and highly infectious waste in urban solid waste management system 


The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic tremendously affected the waste sector, with medical waste subjected to uncontrolled dumping and open burning, leading to public health risks.

With the potential onset of the third wave, it is important to prioritise a separate collection of the infectious and highly infectious waste in the urban solid waste management system (USWM). It is also crucial to equip the system with essential resources and skills to break the infection chain at the generation stage. 

USWM has been facing new challenges with the global spread of COVID-19. The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) notified the Solid Waste Management Rules and Bio-Medical Waste Management Rules in 2016 to effectively manage waste.

Consequently, the local governments adopted several policies for waste management. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) issued specific guidelines for Indian states to store, collect, transport, recycle, process and dispose of COVID-19 infectious waste to reduce the risk of infection spread. 

The COVID-19 outbreak increased the quantity of urban solid waste (USW) generated and changed its composition. These changes have been accelerated by the widespread implementation of syndromic management of COVID-19 throughout India.

Syndromic management enables asymptomatic and mildly infected patients to be under home isolation / quarantine. These patients contribute to an exponential rise in household USW generated.

The additions to traditional residential USW include infectious and highly infectious bio-medical waste generated during diagnosis, treatment and quarantine. These include sanitary waste, masks, gloves and personal protective equipment (PPE) kits that have the potential to spread infection.

The quantity of USW from households increased during the lockdown. The increase can be attributed to the disease’s effects on lifestyles such as in-home cooking, online shopping, use of packaged foods, etc.

Thus, bio-medical waste management has become a part of the current urban solid waste management system and poses serious challenges to it. The strain on USW management was compounded during the second wave of COVID-19 in India, with the increased number of infected patients and changes in isolation, quarantine and hospitalisation protocols.

While the ratio of waste infected with COVID-19 virus is lower in USW than in bio-medical waste generated from medical facilities, its infection risk cannot be ignored. The risk is high given the probability of improper segregation and the staff’s lack of know-how about the handling of waste.

The USW system has to upgrade its facilities to accommodate the changes. It has been a challenge across India. Consequently, the infrastructure resilience of the waste management system needs to be examined.

Management of bio-medical waste generated in hospitals follows standard protocols for segregation of infectious and highly infectious waste and their treatment at the source.

Similar protocols are absent for household COVID-19 bio-medical waste. However, COVID-19 infection spread through solid waste can be reduced if the waste is stored till the virus dies. 

Since this virus can survive a maximum of three days (up to 72 hours), one may think of segregating and storing the waste in a yellow bag to reduce the chances of spreading the infection. Storage space and availability of manpower can pose challenges in implementation. 

Separate collection of infectious and highly infectious waste needs to be streamlined through appropriate authorities collecting the waste regularly from households to avoid unauthorised dumping of waste.

The infectious waste should not be mixed with the daily USW during storage, collection and transportation.

Reducing the use of PPE kits in non-COVID-19 areas and the use of reusable masks and gloves is a potential short-term solution to reduce waste generation. 

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

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