2021-09-18 11:30:08 Covid Trash Isn’t Always Dangerous. Not Everyone Got the Memo.

Covid Trash Isn’t Always Dangerous. Not Everyone Got the Memo.

Recycling plants in Brazil have been shut down for months. A junkyard in Uganda is depleted of reusable plastics. Disposable gloves and face shields are piling up at a river mouth in Indonesia’s capital.

During the pandemic, there was an increase in the use of plastics and packaging, resulting in mountains of waste. However, because of Covid-19-related work stoppages at recycling facilities, some reusable material has been discarded or burned instead.

At the same time, solid waste experts claim that a large amount of personal protective equipment has been mislabeled as hazardous. Because that material is frequently not permitted in regular trash, much of it is dumped in burn pits or as litter.

Experts say that in both cases, an early fear — that the coronavirus could easily spread through surfaces — has created a difficult-to-shake stigma around handling perfectly safe trash. Many scientists and government agencies have since discovered that the concern about surface transmission was greatly exaggerated. However, old habits die hard, particularly in countries where waste disposal guidelines have not been updated and officials are still preoccupied with fighting new outbreaks.

“Because there isn’t a route of transmission through recycling, say, we’re still finding things being burned rather than recycled because people are scared” of surface transmission, according to Anne Woolridge, who leads the International Solid Waste Association’s working group on health care waste. “You try to educate the entire world in less than a year. It’s not possible.”

Dr. Woolridge stated that before the pandemic, the sight of gloves and masks littering the world would have been unthinkable. “However, because everyone is saying that anything related to the pandemic is medical waste, it has put pressure on the system,” she added.

Recycling closures

Recycling rates fell sharply around the world last year, owing in part to a drop in demand from manufacturers. In many countries where the recycling industry is still dominated by hand sorting rather than machines, in-person work has been halted due to virus concerns.

According to Abrelpe, a national association of sanitation companies, the generation of recyclable material in cities in Brazil increased by 25% in 2020, owing primarily to an increase in online shopping. Nonetheless, recycling programs in several cities halted operations for several months, citing surface transmission concerns.

This had obvious human and environmental consequences. According to a recent study, at least 16,000 tons of recyclable material were in circulation during the suspension period, representing an economic loss of about $1.2 million per month for waste-picker associations. According to another study, a month of suspensions was a missed opportunity to save the amount of electricity used by over 152,000 households.

“The suspension highlighted our system’s weaknesses,” said Liane Nakada, a researcher at the University of Campinas and co-author of the second paper. She and her husband kept their recycling at home for months in order to avoid improper disposal, but they were the exception.

A global schism

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

“The numbers are returning to normal, and we’re shifting from a Covid discussion to one of ‘OK, let’s get back to circularity, sustainability, and plastics recycling,’” Mr. Michelsen explained.

However, he added, in countries where recycling is driven by informal collectors, lockdowns and outbreaks continue to cause major disruptions.


6:55 p.m. ET on September 17, 2021

Prior to a recent Covid outbreak in Kampala, Uganda, hundreds of people would congregate at a city dump to sort through plastics. They would then sell the plastics to middlemen, who would then resell them to recycling companies.

However, when the country went into lockdown this summer, movement restrictions prevented trucks from picking up trash in some districts. Surface transmission was also a concern, with officials claiming that Covid was on the rise because people weren’t washing their hands.

According to Luke Mugerwa, a representative for a local pickers’ group, only about a third of the usual number of waste pickers were at the Kampala city dump as of this month. Some manufacturers who came looking for recycled plastics were disappointed.

“They are always looking for plastics to buy,” Mr. Mugerwa explained. “The demand is there, but the supply is extremely limited.”

P.P.E. is proliferating

Another issue is the abundance of used personal protective equipment that has flooded the world since the beginning of the pandemic. Every year, approximately eight million metric tons of plastics enter the ocean, and experts fear that used P.P.E. and other litter will exacerbate the problem.

According to Mr. Michelsen of the International Finance Corporation, most P.P.E. is not hazardous, but many countries still classify it as such. As a result, used gloves and masks are frequently mixed in with truly hazardous medical waste and either treated at great expense — a waste of money — or disposed of in another way.

Understand Vaccine and Mask Requirements in the United States

The Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-coronavirus BioNTech’s vaccine for people aged 16 and up on August 23, paving the way for mandate increases in both the public and private sectors. Vaccines are increasingly being mandated for employees by private companies. Such mandates are legally permissible and have been upheld in court.
Mask is supreme. In July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within outbreak areas, reversing previous guidance issued in May. See where the CDC guidance would apply, as well as where states have implemented their own mask policies. Masks have become a point of contention in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
Universities and colleges
Over 400 colleges and universities require students to be immunized against Covid-19. Almost all of them are in states that supported Vice President Biden.
Schools. Vaccine mandates for educators have been implemented in both California and New York City. According to an August survey, many American parents of school-age children oppose mandatory vaccines for students, but are more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers, and staff members who do not have their shots.
Hospitals and medical facilities
Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring Covid-19 vaccinations for their employees, citing rising caseloads caused by the Delta variant and persistently low vaccination rates in their communities, including within their own workforce.
The city of New York. Workers and customers must show proof of vaccination for indoor dining, gyms, performances, and other indoor situations, though enforcement does not begin until September 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will be required to receive at least one vaccine dose by September 27, with no option for weekly testing. Employees at city hospitals must also get vaccinated or undergo weekly testing. New York State employees are subject to similar rules.
On a federal level. The Pentagon announced that coronavirus vaccinations would be made mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would be required to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or face regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements, and travel restrictions.

“If you have high volumes coming out the back of your hospitals in these areas that don’t have infrastructure, they’ll just set fire to it,” Dr. Woolridge explained.

Last year, the United Nations Environment Program estimated that health care facilities around the world generated approximately 7.5 pounds of Covid-related medical waste per person per day. It claimed that the rate of overall health care waste disposal had increased by 500% in Jakarta, Indonesia, and four other Asian megacities.

Some of that waste will undoubtedly end up as litter. Prepandemic pollution surveys of a local river mouth in the Indonesian capital by the Research Center for Oceanography did not reveal much P.P.E. A recent survey, however, discovered that equipment such as masks, face shields, gloves, and hazmat suits accounted for approximately 15% of the pollution.

“Waste is still leaking into the environment, even in Jakarta, which has the country’s largest budget for environmental management,” said Muhammad Reza Cordova, a scientist involved in the river surveys. “What about areas with lower budgets?”

A search for syringes

As the flood of material puts new strains on local governments, syringes and other truly hazardous medical waste may end up in the wrong places.

That would endanger the health of waste pickers in the world’s poorest countries. Tens of thousands of people already scavenge in landfills, for example, in Bangladesh. However, only three or four of the country’s 64 districts have facilities for safely disposing of used syringes, according to Mostafizur Rahman, a solid waste expert in Dhaka.

“These landfills are not secure or sanitary, which is very concerning in terms of environmental health and safeguards,” said Dr. Rahman, an environmental sciences professor at Jahangirnagar University.

Because syringes and vaccine vials are valuable on the black market, criminal gangs have an incentive to steal vaccination equipment and resell it illegally into the health care system.

Interpol issued a warning late last year that the pandemic had already “triggered unprecedented opportunistic and predatory criminal behavior.”

Interpol warned late last year that the pandemic had already “triggered unprecedented opportunistic and predatory criminal behavior” in the form of Covid-19 and flu vaccine theft, falsification, and illegal advertising. The warning was issued before the majority of the world’s population had received a Covid shot.

“It’s a real issue in the marketplace,” said Mr. Michelsen. “These vials have a high black market value because they can be filled with anything and sold.”

Reporting was contributed by Manuela Andreoni, Muktita Suhartono, and Musinguzi Blanshe.

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Covid Trash Isn't Always Dangerous. Not Everyone Got the Memo.