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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Pandemic’s other scourge

Plastics and other medical waste created while dealing with COVID-19 could prove to be environmental hazards.

Updated: March 17, 2021 8:56:08 pm

Written by Avanish K Panikkar

While the social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are in everyone’s mind and every country’s policy and budget papers, the third element of a triple-bottom-line assessment, the environment, should not be forgotten. The environmental consequences of COVID-19 impact various aspects of the planet’s life, such as changes in the type and quantity of waste, management and disposal of waste, use of energy due to varied work and life practices, use of fuel due to varied travel practices.

It has been reported that hospitals in the US alone produce more than five million tonnes of waste each year of which more than a quarter is made of plastic. The packaging and equipment used in healthcare have to strictly adhere to medical-grade plastic standards and be resistant to sterilisation methods, radiation, static and other potentially damaging situations. This means the margin of error or impurity is pretty much zero. That means such materials have to be made from virgin resources and not from recycled materials and their disposal also has to follow certain norms and procedures due to the potential for pathogenic contamination to the environment (which includes people and animals).

Based on industry reports and in the professional opinion of this writer, the scale of the problem is not reliably quantified. Normally, as the focus has rightly been on reducing the risk of illness, a single item from a package of single-use items will be used and the remaining sterilised items would be thrown out.

When an unprecedented situation eventuates, the routine is thrown out the window. Many studies, more so in 2020, have reported on the impact of a pandemic and epidemic on our material utilisation and changes to the LCA (life cycle analysis) of many of our resource streams.

Single-use plastics, especially light plastics that one can scrunch with bare hands, are usually bestowed the “un-recyclable” label, with the dungeons of a dirty landfill as their only fate, where they will survive the ensuing millennia, like a soul devoid of any divinity destined to forever endure the fires of hell.

The unavoidable increment in the quantity of single-use plastic products required for personal protection and healthcare has disrupted and impacted the short-term and long-term waste management practices. The Australian waste management industry had been set up with a reliance on several international processing industries, in the absence of a good domestic manufacturing industry. Especially in light of the recent ban on waste imports by several receiving countries such as China, alternatives, or a new business plan, had been on the cards. A sudden shift in waste composition requires resilience and dynamic responsiveness. In addition to the quantities, the residual pathogenic potential of old and newly added waste materials (the latter mainly comprising masks, gloves, PPE overall) especially in residential, commercial and healthcare sectors has caused some concerns in the waste industry.

The energy footprint of producing and managing items including plastic packaging is also not to be forgotten. Plastic packaging is easy to produce and strict requirements for healthcare standards require this to be sourced mostly from virgin materials, not recycled sources. A country such as Australia where a seemingly robust waste management industry exists and with a low COVID health impact can manage the added waste streams from the widespread use of single-use materials. Countries such as India with a nascent waste management industry are rife with immature practices. With a heavy reliance on manual scavenging for recycling, any health and safety imbalance will see this waste industry overwhelmed.

Unbeknown to the healthcare industry, public littering from used masks and gloves have been captured in widely publicised (on social media and in academic circles at least) images at beaches, public parks and other open spaces due either to carelessness of the user or lack of proper disposal options. This would eventually find its way to a water body or other sensitive environment.

In a medical setting, the service-receiver (the patient and their support personnel) are neither usually in a position to deny plastics nor in a mindset to give any priority to it – unlike rejecting another single-use plastic bag at the supermarket checkout or avoiding the use of a plastic straw at the restaurant. So, change has to come from within the sector. While it is acceptable that during the start of COVID-19, no country in the world had the luxury of time to focus on how to manage the potential for increased medical waste, the months that ensued had afforded time to contemplate and consider better choices.

Alternatives to landfilling exist to convert single-use plastics into useful products – such as light-weight composites used to produce prosthetics or into harder recycled plastics such as outdoor furniture/landscaping materials, where it will still survive for a long time but while serving a good cause. The advent of 3D-printing has ameliorated voids of manufacturing opportunities. The only thing required is a constant and reliable supply of relatively clean materials delivered to a processing unit or, outside the healthcare sector, to collection points such as the red-cycle bins located at supermarkets. The single-use plastic packaging and other materials need to be carefully managed for contamination, though.

In the good old waste management hierarchy, the top priority is to ‘Reduce’ (followed by Reuse and Recycle) – so it is pretty straight forward to think up ways to reduce the need for materials that will make our ever-expanding ecological footprint grow to a shoe size we will find too large to fit into anything. However, when it comes to the healthcare requirements especially related to an unprecedented pandemic, “reducing” may not be a priority as much as saving lives and stopping the spread of the virus.

According to some publicly-available data, almost 85 per cent of waste from healthcare is noninfectious and a large portion of it can be recycled too. However, waste from a hospital environment is collected as commingled and disposed of together – landfilled or incinerated. As per reports, Western Health in Melbourne had identified a saving of $100,000 per year by replacing single-use items with some reusable items. Similar stories have been reported by Auburn Hospital in Sydney and Flinders Medical Centre near Adelaide. Non-reusable items such as truly-single-use saline bags are recycled by specialist recycling industry units. RMIT in Australia has reported methods to literally pave a road to recycle disposable COVID (or otherwise) facemasks. This goes well with the recycling of plastic into roads elsewhere in Australia, India and other places.

Considerable effort and financial backing are required from governments and possibly industry (perhaps based on the polluter-pays policy, or corporate social responsibility from medical and pharmaceutical producers) to assist in source-separating the materials and safety managing them appropriately.

The Canadian government has decided to award grants for developing solutions for the manufacture of compostable disposable surgical masks and respirators to be used by healthcare workers and for the efficient and cost-effective recycling of disposable PPE waste generated in the Canadian healthcare sector. We need more like this!

During the pandemic, many workplaces have restructured their worker placement habits, if practically possible, to reduce the number of personnel in constricted spaces such as offices and meeting rooms. This included many businesses advising their workers to work from home as much as possible, reducing face to face meetings and, most importantly in the context of this article, the commute. Most of the blue-collar jobs have, however, continued as they are mostly outdoors.

An article in the journal Science of The Total Environment (Aug 2020) reported: “Recent data released by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and ESA (European Space Agency) indicates that pollution in some of the epicentres of COVID-19 such as Wuhan, Italy, Spain and the USA etc. has reduced up to 30 per cent.” A lock-down in one-third of the cities in China, the birthplace of COVID-19, has been assessed and reported to have contributed to significant improvement in air quality in those areas in comparison to previous years’ data.

There have been several reports and academic studies on various cities and industrial economies previously choking on smog, having clearer air and resultant amelioration of breathing issues for residents.

Globally, some early analysis (Carbon Brief) predicted that the reduction in CO2 emission would be around 1600 million tonnes in 2020 – nearly 5.5 per cent of what we puffed out in 2019. This is a blessing, perhaps, as per a Harvard University School of Public Health report which stated that people who live in areas with poor air quality could have more health impact from COVID-19.

The writer is Senior Adjunct Lecturer Griffith University, and Senior Environmental Engineer and Auditor, Sydney

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