The Covid crisis is now also a garbage crisis

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Recycling plants across Brazil shut down for months. In Uganda, a junkyard has a shortage of reusable plastic. And in the Indonesian capital, disposable gloves and face shields are piling up at an estuary.

The rising consumption of plastic and packaging during the pandemic has led to mountains of waste. But as fears of Covid-19 have led to work stoppages at recycling facilities, some reusable material has been thrown away or burned instead.

At the same time, large amounts of personal protective equipment have been misclassified as hazardous, solid waste experts say. That material is often not allowed in the normal waste, so much of it is dumped in fire pits or as litter.

Experts say a problem in both cases is that an early fear — that the coronavirus could easily spread through surfaces — created a hard-to-break stigma around handling perfectly safe waste. Many scientists and government agencies have since found that the fear of surface transmission was greatly exaggerated. But old habits die hard, especially in countries where waste disposal guidelines haven’t been updated and officials are still fighting new outbreaks.

“Because there is no transmission route through recycling, we still find things are incinerated rather than recycled because people are afraid” of surface transfer, said Anne Woolridge, who leads a working group on health care waste for the International Association of Human Resources. solid waste. “You try to train the entire world population in less than a year. It’s impossible.”

As for personal protective equipment, said Dr. Woolridge, the sight of gloves and masks littering the world before the pandemic would have been unimaginable. “But because everyone is saying that everything related to the pandemic is medical waste, it puts a strain on the system,” she added.

Recycling rates last year dropped sharply around the world, partly because demand from manufacturers fell. In many countries where the recycling industry is still sorted by hand rather than machines, personal work has been suspended due to virus-related fears.

In Brazil, for example, production of recyclables in cities increased by 25 percent in 2020, mainly due to a spike in online shopping, according to Abrelpe, a national association of sanitary companies. But recycling programs in several cities have been suspending operations for several months anyway, citing fears of surface transfer.

This had clear human and environmental costs. A recent study found that at least 16,000 tons of recyclable material than normal was in circulation during the suspension period, representing an economic loss of about $1.2 million per month for waste collection associations. Another study said that a one-month suspension missed opportunity to save the amount of electricity used by more than 152,000 households.

“The suspension exposed the weaknesses of our system,” said Liane Nakada, co-author of the second paper and researcher at the University of Campinas. She and her husband kept their recycling at home for months to avoid mis-disposing of it, but they were the exception.

Recycling rates are now returning to pre-Covid levels in developed economies, said James D. Michelsen, a solid waste expert at the International Finance Corporation.

“The numbers are going back to normal and we are turning away from a Covid discussion to one of ‘OK, let’s go back to circularity, sustainability, plastics recycling,’” Michelsen said.

But in countries where recycling is driven by informal collectors, he added, lockdowns and outbreaks are still causing major disruption.

Before a recent Covid outbreak hit Kampala, Uganda, hundreds of people gathered to pick plastic from a city dump. They would then sell the plastics to intermediaries, who later sold it to recycling companies.

But when the country went into lockdown this summer, restrictions on movement prevented trucks from picking up trash in some districts. There was also fear of surface transmission: Officials said Covid was on the rise because people hadn’t washed their hands.

As of this month, only about a third of the usual number of garbage pickers were at the Kampala landfill, said Luke Mugerwa, a representative of a local pickers group. Some manufacturers looking for reclaimed plastics were out of luck.

“Every day they are always looking for plastic to buy,” Mugerwa said. “The demand is there, but the supply is very low.”

Another challenge is the personal protective equipment used that has flooded the world since the start of the pandemic. About eight million tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, and experts fear that the use of personal protective equipment and other litter could make that situation worse.

Most personal protective equipment is not dangerous, but many countries still classify it as such, said Mr Michelsen of the International Finance Corporation. That means used gloves and masks are often lumped together with really hazardous medical waste and either treated at great expense – a waste of money – or otherwise disposed of.

“If there’s big volumes coming out the back of your hospitals in these areas that don’t have infrastructure, they’re just going to set it on fire,” said Dr. Woolridge.

The United Nations Environment Programme estimated last year that healthcare facilities around the world produced approximately 7.5 pounds of Covid-related medical waste per person per day worldwide. It said that in Jakarta, Indonesia, and four other Asian megacities, total healthcare waste handling had increased by about 500 percent.

Some of that waste inevitably ends up as litter. In the Indonesian capital, prepandemic pollution surveys of a local estuary by the Research Center for Oceanography did not yield much PPE. .

“Even in Jakarta, which has the largest environmental management budget in the country, the waste is still leaking into the environment,” said Muhammad Reza Cordova, a scientist involved in the river research. “What about other areas with smaller budgets?”

An emerging concern is that, as the flow of material creates new pressures on local authorities, syringes and other really hazardous medical waste could end up in the wrong places.

In the world’s poorest countries, this would pose a health risk to waste collectors. Tens of thousands of people, for example, are already foraging in landfills in Bangladesh. But only three or four of the country’s 64 districts have facilities to safely dispose of used syringes, said Mostafizur Rahman, a solid waste expert in the capital Dhaka.

“These landfills aren’t safe or hygienic, so it’s really concerning in terms of environmental health and safety measures,” says Dr. Rahman, a professor of environmental sciences at Jahangirnagar University.

And because syringes and vaccine vials are valuable commodities on the black market, criminal gangs have an incentive to steal vaccine equipment and illegally sell it to health care providers.

late last year, Interpol warned that the pandemic had already “caused unprecedented opportunistic and predatory criminal behavior” surrounding the theft, counterfeiting and illegal advertising of Covid-19 and flu vaccines. The warning came before most of the world’s population had even received a Covid shot.

“It’s a real problem in the market,” said Mr. Michelsen. “These bottles have tremendous black market value because you can fill them with whatever you want and sell them.”

Manuela Andreonic, Muktita Suhartono and Musinguzi Blanche reporting contributed.

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