In Dhaka, masks or even rubber gloves littered on the streets are a common sight now amid the coronavirus pandemic. The mindless dumping of personal protective equipment (PPE) poses big health and environmental risks, experts say.
Huge amounts of such trash, commonly called COVID waste, are also mixed up with household garbage collected by workers who have no protection from the virus and other diseases, leaving them vulnerable to infections, reports bdnews24.com.
Public health expert Dr Mushtuq Husain says the shortcomings in overall waste management have increased the worries over the management of COVID waste.
If COVID waste, especially from the houses with coronavirus patients, will lead to infections of the garbage collectors and the people who come in close contact with them, the situation will worsen, said Dr Husain, a former chief scientific officer at the government’s disease control agency IEDCR.
Struggling to properly dispose of COVID-related wastes amid the gripping threat of the second wave of the outbreak, the two city corporations of Dhaka blame the ignorance of the citizens for the fractious state of the clinical wastes.
Although the hospitals have gradually made improvements in the proper disposal of wastes, no particular move was yet taken to manage COVID wastes from households in the city.
The wastes are dumped in Aminbazar and other designated places finally as the city corporations do not have a facility to burn or recycle the garbage.
Authorities say a failure in sorting out the usual household trash from COVID wastes, both of which get mixed at homes, is at the root of the problem.
Air Commodore Md Badrul Amin, the chief waste management officer at Dhaka South City Corporation, thinks a lack of accurate information made it tough to properly handle wastes.
On why DSCC lagged behind in proper COVID waste management, he said, “There is a difference between regular waste management and COVID waste management. If I have information on how many COVID patients live in any given area and where their homes are, then I could take steps in light of that. I don’t even have the slightest information. How am I supposed to work then?”
“Besides, people are ignorant about this. Leave alone separately discarding any protective equipment, they are throwing down masks and hand gloves everywhere. We have always worked on the awareness of the citizens, but we are getting completely the opposite results now.”
SM Shafiqur Rahman, the chief waste management officer at Dhaka North City Corporation, said they have been working to raise awareness among the people over the proper management of COVID waste.
“We provided them with separate polythene bags to keep COVID waste. It had worked initially, but now they are mixing up regular trash with COVID waste,” he said.
Prism Bangladesh, a private organisation, is working to improve the waste management of hospitals in the capital.
Khondkar Anisur Rahman, the executive director of the organisation, said they sat with both the city corporations last year with a proposal to destroy separately the COVID waste collected from the households.
“The Dhaka South City Corporation failed to do that. The North dumps COVID wastes in five zones. We gather them. But we are not receiving the expected amount of personal protective equipment. The COVID wastes are blending in ordinary garbage.”
Engaged in collecting wastes from homes at Mohammadia Housing area in Mohammadpur, Forkan Mia said that although masks and other protective equipment were found in separate packages at the start of the outbreak last year, it was no longer the case.
He said, “At the start of the coronavirus outbreak last year, many houses would throw away their masks in the trash putting them in separate packets. We are still getting masks, gloves with other rubbish. We load them all onto the city corporation transport after taking them to the depot.”
According to a study carried out by BRAC last year, a meagre 6.6 per cent of the wastes occurring from coronavirus protection gear and other medical products are being properly managed, but the mammoth portion of the trash is littered unmanageably.
Coronavirus protection equipment accounts for as much as 282.45 tonnes of wastes every day. All of it is removed along with household wastes.
According to a study done by non-government organisation Environment and Social Development Organisation or ESDO, single-use products made up 14,165 tonnes of plastic wastes around the country in the month of May last year. Dhaka city produced 3,076 tonnes of waste at that time.
To boost the odds of safety against the virus, the outbreak was countered by mass usage of products made of plastic, including masks, hand gloves and polythene bags, at homes and healthcare facilities.
In April last year, 12.7 per cent of plastic wastes were from surgical face masks. As many as 450 million masks were used at that time, which produced at least 1,592 tonnes of plastic wastes. Dhaka again came out on top in generating the rubbish.
Apart from that, ordinary hand gloves make up 24.2 per cent of the garbage while 22.6 per cent came from surgical hand gloves. Polythene bags used for carrying food accounted for 40.8 per cent, according to the ESDO study.
Shahriar Hossain, secretary-general of ESDO, said, “The number of plastic wastes, those we are calling COVID wastes in particular, have gone up over the last one year.”
Asked about the rate at which these wastes are increasing, Shahriar said, “We will soon publish the results of an updated study we carried out last year. From what we saw, [the rate] is not quite double, but it is definitely higher than before.”
An estimation by Prism states that the number of medical wastes (14 tonnes) produced before the emergence of the pandemic dropped by fifty per cent. However, 70 per cent of the garbage is now COVID wastes.
Prism’s Anisur said: “The medical wastes in Dhaka Medical have lessened. We used to get 12-14 tonnes of wastes every day earlier. But now patients are not going to hospitals, barring those who require emergency surgeries. Most COVID patients are getting admitted to hospitals.
“We collect waste from all the hospitals of Dhaka, not by going door to door. But COVID wastes are being generated at home as well. General people now use masks, hand gloves. These are the COVID wastes and we're not being able to gather them,” he said.
So, are the medical wastes in Dhaka city being handled properly?
Anisur said, “I won’t say that it is being managed well enough. We’ve spoken about the biosafety bag right from the start. But that is not happening. Some private hospitals were able to do it. But the government ones have failed to comply. They are putting [wastes] inside drums. But we are still collecting them. We need to do this appropriately. But that is not happening. This is our woe.”
Md Moniruzzaman, director-general of the Department of Environment, did not respond to calls seeking comments about the issue.
Abdullah Al Mamun, the department’s deputy director for waste management, said it is not directly involved with waste management at the ground level but issues instructions and monitors if there is any violation of environmental laws.
He said they issued instructions on managing COVID waste last year.
They are also working on amending medical waste management guidelines, he added.