Rethinking Waste Management in times of #COVID19

The movie Contagion’s grim visuals of uncollected garbage lining deserted streets, was one of the most profound images that stayed with me, after the movie ended. It continued to haunt me, as I consumed media reports about increasing COVID19 positive cases.  On 17th March 2020, I put out a social media post highlighting the need to extend duty of care to waste workers. ( https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/extending-duty-care-waste-workers-covid-19-pinky-chandran/?published=t) While the post was well received, with many citizens advocating for segregation of waste at source, I still felt restless. What was it that we were missing? Why is managing waste always an afterthought?

At a State Level Advisory Committee on SWM policy and strategy meeting, by the Directorate of Municipal Administration (DMA), I emphasised the need to include a chapter on Disaster Based Waste Management. The draft policy released by the DMA, mentions Disaster Waste Management, under Special waste in the content page, but does not specify a framework or approach.[i] Another incident that took place in February this year, was when I was invited to a Content Creation Workshop on Disaster Preparedness for Cyclones through Community of Practice for Community Radio Stations, one of the key discussion was the inclusion on disaster waste management in the post disaster rescue operations.

This got me thinking, if one of the keys to managing disaster is preparedness, why do we disconnect from reality- from multiple levels- planning and managing both waste and people working in waste? The lesson from 1918 flu pandemic was a mirror image of the movie Contagion as the flu did not differentiate between class. Waste Management and people who work in and with waste are extremely vulnerable, so how do we draw up a framework to fortify systems, sensitize citizens and protect frontline workers? Can waste management be looked at as a critical service?

Challenges for waste management in times of #COVID19

On 1st April 2020, the WHO Director General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19, highlighted the near exponential growth in the number of new cases, in over five weeks. So what are the challenges for waste management? 

Challenges are varied across- generators of waste, type and quantity of waste, destinations, processes, worker safety, and other linkages- including reverse logistics.

The first challenge, is to re-define the classification of generators during COVID-19. One must look at general population including slums and informal settlements, people in home quarantines- both from people with mild symptoms and asymptomatic, waste from places post contact tracing, people in quarantine camps at the borders and other areas, COVID clusters, people in hospitals, general hospitals, diagnostic labs and street waste.  But this classification, only focusses on known infected cases and the non-affected population’s singular focus on protecting themselves.

Shekar Prabhakar, Co-founder of Hasiru Dala Innovation says, ‘I suggest a flip for the non-affected population. They must consider themselves as asymptomatic carriers of the virus and must give a serious thought on what they are disposing or what is going out of their homes. Masks, gloves, hand/face tissues should be wrapped in a newspaper with a X prominently displayed and collected in garbage bags, placed in a separate container clearly kept aside and handed over to the waste collector only at the time of collection’.  

Myriam Shankar, Co-founder of TAICT, agreeing with Prabhakar proposes says ‘Now is the time to rigorously implement a system where we have a unified colour coded bin system. Waste should not be touched by anybody, especially at the waste worker level. Perhaps, now would be a good time to expand the current three bin into more categories, given that the corona virus stays on different surfaces for different period of times. It is unfair to expect the waste workers to segregate or even be dumped in the landfills/quarries.’

Street waste is another huge challenge in itself, not only is it mixed, it does pose a huge risk, if there is waste that has been contaminated. Shankar adds, ‘Hypothetically, I am playing out a scenario, if a COVI19 carrier throws a wrapper on the ground say at a playground, and a child comes in contact, accidently, and carries it home, embraces his mother etc, then entire chain is affected. Yes, I understand that this is not possible now in a lockdown, but how long will the lockdown continue? But this could also be a waste worker who touches it. The prospects are scary. We need to be aware and cautious than sorry’.

The second challenge is the rise in biomedical waste, from hospitals along with increase in disposal of personal protective equipment (PPE) by general public. As witnessed by China, in Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus first emerged, the biomedical waste being generated was so high that the government had to deploy mobile waste treatment facilities and construct a new medical waste treatment plant.

According to Shankar, the installed capacity for Biomedical waste is totally inadequate. She says, ‘With amount of the PPE disposed because of the corona virus, the city of Bangalore can only manage less than one third properly as per the law. Imagine the increased outflow, it is extremely disturbing.’

Equally disturbing, is the lax and I don’t care attitude towards segregation of waste at the household level, leading to increase in mixed waste. Mixed waste, in times like these compromise destinations and put public health at risk by large.

Prabhakar also believes that since the coronavirus is known to survive on certain materials like cardboard, plastics etc, all dry waste must be stored for as long as possible in homes. He says, ‘The primary responsibility of thinking about waste and how to manage waste has to be shifted up the chain to the waste generator ( through consumption) and the brands ( through products whose consumption creates waste). It is only then downstream waste management can be optimised for material recovery with least harmful effects to waste workers.

The third urgent challenge is inter- departmental coordination to map households and waste services, based on generators mentioned above.  This needs to be digitally mapped. Along with this a multi-stakeholder mapping and inclusion is equally important. Different geographical areas house multi-population, where space is a constant challenge, like slums or informal settlements. I would also place important on the industry taking up extended producers responsibility and assuming responsibility.

The fourth challenge is around worker awareness and safety.  The waste workers need to be trained on how to handle waste, new instructions must be provided of how to handle waste from specific generators, who have been in home quarantine and to handle the influx is PPE disposed from households. The distribution of PPE to all waste workers ( formal and informal), including instructions on how to clean and when to dispose and where to seek supplies when the PPE is torn. A new study by researchers from the University of Hong Kong, has found that the novel corona virus that causes COVID19 stays on the outer layer of face masks for upto one week. What provisions have been made to ensure fresh supplies everyday? At a special sitting of the Karnataka High Court on March 30, the Court directed the State to provide safety equipment to every sanitation worker in Karnataka and provide breakfast and transport facilities during the lockdown.  Can the Karnataka Essential Services Maintenance Act, 2015 be used to protect waste workers both — registered and informal?

The need for separate vehicle to collect these waste based on types of generator. But the problem arises when the worker, has to also collect from the general population, along with those quarantined or asymptomatic.  What happens when the garbage falls from a torn bag, how do the workers handle that? Should the waste from these households be double bagged in plastic, which is banned in Karnataka, or should it be wrapped in newspaper?

The fifth challenge are the waste destinations – guidelines, processes, data and penalty. What are the guidelines on handling tissues or gloves mixed with dry waste? Should the entire lot be treated as contaminated, even if one of the houses have an asymptomatic person? This is in relation to the staying power of the virus on different surfaces? What about the biomedical facilities themselves? How equipped are they to handle the waste? Has there been any preparedness, audit to check the capacity? How can data be tracked and compared? What are the provisions for dumping of COVID waste?

The sixth challenge is reverse supply chain logistics. While waste is being collected, it only gets accumulated in destinations, as the rest of the downstream recycling and processing operations are shutdown. What are the solutions, then? Can the entire value chain from collection, recovery, recycling be treated as essential services?

Laws and Legal Frameworks

Let’s go back in time and look at the different legal frameworks.

 ‘The Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897’, to control communicable diseases, is limited in it approach as it is only regulatory in nature and is silent on many areas including the implementation of response measures.  The act completely excludes people and the human rights angle and is oblivious to issues of waste.

The Disaster Management Act, 2005 much broader in its focus, but leaves much to be interpreted if a pandemic would be classified as a natural disaster. It does make a mention for the need for debris removal and the need for preparing a disaster management plan including a disaster rescue plan, which is more relevant, to our context.  

The Karnataka Epidemic Diseases, COVID19 Regulations 2020, notified in the gazette under the Epidemic Diseases Act, to prevent the outbreak and spread of Corona Virus in force for one year from 11th March 2020, makes no mention of waste management.

On 18th March 2020, the Central Pollution Control Board issued the ‘Guidelines for Handling, Treatment and Disposal of Waste Generated during Treatment/Diagnosis/Quarantine of COVID19 Patients’.[i] The covering letter specified that in addition to these guidelines, existing Solid Waste Management Rules 2016 and Biomedical Waste Management Rules 2016 must be practiced. The guidelines provide a series of steps for handling and safe disposal of waste from different quarters. It recommends double bagging of waste from COVID 19 wards including labelling bags/containers as COVID19 Waste, recording generation of waste, use of separate trolleys and disinfectant methods.

For quarantine camps/home care, the guidelines recommend that routine waste is treated as part of SWM Rules 2016 and only biomedical waste be collected separately in a yellow bag and handed over to authorised waste collector.  It however does not specifically address asymptomatic people or those with mild symptoms, assuming that positive cases will be hospitalised.

One positive aspect of the guideline is under the duties of State Pollution Control Board, to maintain all records of COVID19 treatment wards, quarantine centres and homes and specifies the need for collection of biomedical waste from locations not under regular health care facility.

What are other states doing?

Himachal Pradesh

The Shimla Municipal Corporation, has put in place a special taskforce for door-to-door collection.

A Facebook post by Geetika Karol, speaks about practices by Shimla Municipal Corporation

I have been nothing but proud of the Indian Govt in last couple of weeks, the way they have been handling this whole epidemic breakout. With population so large and limited resources it is not easy at all to contain coronavirus, the way it is spreading.The strategies put in place is amazing and the thought process commendable. India is setting an example for rest of the world. Disclaimer: I am not pro or against any political party. #covid2020 #indiatoday #indiangovernment Personal example: I travelled from Dubai to India, Chandigarh airport on March 17th, 2020.1. A form was filled stating recent travel history and any coronavirus related symptoms. 2. Thermal check was performed at the airport and we were educated on the importance of staying at home. 3. On reaching my hometown Shimla, I was advised to notify the local office of Deputy Commissioner about my recent travel. I immediately called the provided helpline number and provided all required details. Advised to home quarantine for 28 days. 4. After couple of days, received a call enquiring about my and my family’s health and if there were any visible symptoms. 5. Got a home visit today, handed over a huge bag with gloves and disinfectant. Gave a phone number to call whenever we need to dispose of the garbage and instructed not to dispose of the garbage with common garbage janitor. 6. A poster is stuck outside my home stating the entire home is under quarantine and no one should visit.All I can request is to please cooperate with them, it’s not easy for our front line heroes who are working for our safety🙏Source: Geetika Karol FB post, 28th March 2020

Maharashtra

Based on CPCB’s directive that States publish the guidelines, Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB), published the final guidelines, on handling, COVID19 waste.

What should Karnataka do?

We need multi-objective, multi-layered, multi-period/duration, multi-actor, multi-communication, approach to handling waste generated during COVID19 outbreak.

Malini Parmar, Cofounder Stone Soup, says, ‘The first principle of waste warriors is to eliminate it. A Chennai flood meant no waste could be collected. Under the Corona umbrella, each waste collection vehicle carries with it a risk of community spread. I agree with Shekar, anyone could be asymptomatic carrier, and it is not just gloves but anything could be carrying the virus. There are a lot of things we as people in disaster zone do differently and holding on to our waste during these times should be one of them. Given that disasters come more frequently, the world could get used to it in a year. As all of us waste warriors will certify, when you compost, eliminate single use disposable cutlery, packaging, choose sustainable hygiene products, you can hold your waste for months! Rescue teams should start disseminate information on Do It Yourself (DIY) techniques for these along with relief! If waste is being collected, all should be considered as household hazardous and treated as such. Dramatically higher cost, but then option 1 is zero cost but needs political will’.

As a first step, we need a Disaster Waste Management Contingency Plan, with all necessary orders, guidelines and details. Parmar, says, ‘I think plan a disaster management plan should be beforehand and tweaked based specific situation and not mad scramble to create documents after the disaster’.

An advisory for citizens based on generator classification for handling #COVID19, could be a start.

Advisory for Door to Door Collection

  • Compulsorily segregate waste as per 2 Bin1Bag method. Make sure that all dry waste is rinsed and dried. Store coconuts separately for pick up.
  • All used PPE must be disposed as sanitary waste double wrapped in a newspaper with a X mark clearly visible 
  • If waste pick-up does not arrive or is delayed ensure that waste is stored and not left at the door steps or dumped on the streets.
  •  As far as possible compost wet waste, in case on non-pick-up.
  • If handing over your dry waste to a waste picker or scrap dealer, ensure that no PPE or sanitary waste is mixed.
  • In addition, the advisory must make announcements of frequency of pick up and staggered collection, if any, along with type of waste collected.

Advisory for Apartments

  • Compulsorily segregate waste as per 2 Bin1Bag method. Make sure that all dry waste is rinsed and dried. Store coconuts separately for pick up.
  • All used PPE must be disposed as sanitary waste double wrapped in a newspaper with a X mark clearly visible 
  • If your apartment is not serviced during lockdown, then encourage residents to store dry waste, for longer periods and explore community composting options.

Advisory for people in home quarantines

  • Based on guidelines issued by CPCB.

Handling Waste: Suggested Matrix

GeneratorType of WasteCollection/ TransportationProcessingWorkers Safety
General Public- Door to Door CollectionWet WasteBBMP CollectionAs per MSW Rules 2016   For DWCC operations, care must be taken to ensure fire safety as materials are being aggregated, with limited sorters.   The BBMP will need to ensure all MLP is immediately transported to aggregation facilities for storage          It is important that each and every worker are provided the necessary information  on #COVID19. This includes potential risk that will be exposed to   Distribution of PPE with clear instructions of how to use and remove, disinfect and reuse instruction if any.Disposal guidelinesDirection on where to apply for PPE, in case soiled or torn. Facilities for food, transport, drinking water, washing and toilet facilities. 
Dry WasteAuthorised Dry Waste Collection Operators/BBMP Collection
Reject/ Sanitary WasteBBMP Collection
People in home quarantine for asymptomatic peopleWet WasteBBMP CollectionAs per MSW Rules 2016Same as above
Dry WasteShould be collected separately in yellow coloured plastic bags/binAs per Biomedical Waste Management Rules 2016The worker needs to be informed on the need for separate collection.There must be a board outside the person’s house stating quarantineA special container needs to be made available in the vehicleProvisions to sanitise the vehicle post handover to the medical waste processor must be made availableThe waste worker must be informed on how to take precautions, all PPE for the day need to be disposed according to the guidelinesAccess to health care facilities/camps must be provided
Reject Waste
ApartmentsWetBBMP Empanelled VendorsAs per MSW Rules 2016The vendors will need to ensure and put in place a fire safety mechanism, for dry waste with the help of BBMPSame as General category of generators
 Dry
 Reject
Certain flats in quarantineWetBBMP Empanelled VendorAs per MSW Rules 2016Special provision, for separate collection and sanitisation
 Dry and Reject WasteBBMP must appoint special collectors and apartments must have strict instruction of holding wasteAs per BWM Rules 2016Worker safety same as people under home quarantine for door to door collection
Clusters areas where cases have been detectedOnce a cluster is identified, the entire area must be dealt with as per home quarantine measures. Special collection must be in place, with worker safety measures. All waste must be treated under BWM Rules 2016
Quarantine CampsSeparate and special collection of waste, must be put in place, with appropriate measures for worker safety.  All waste must be treated under BWM Rules 2016
Hospitals dealing with COVID cases/testingThe CPCB mandates that COVID19 waste be labelled and double bagged in yellow plastic bag. Appropriate collection, transportation and facility for sanitization must be made. Worker safety must be a priority, with access to health camps must be made available
Street WasteAll black spot waste must be treated as domestic hazardous. If only dried leaves and flowers, can be composted.
  • The Karnataka State Pollution Control Board, must issue guidelines immediately and data on waste collected, processed must be in public domain.
  • A grievance redressal cell must also be in place.
  • The ULB will need to bring out appropriate guidelines for the same, with checks on the quality of PPE.
  • A call center to report violations must also be put in place with immediate priority.

Pinky Chandran,

Member, Solid Waste Management Round Table.

Note: All photographs are the author’s, except profile photos of Malini Parmar and Shekar Prabakar

Special thank you to Rohini Malur.


[i] Guidelines for Handling, Treatment and Disposal of Waste Generated during Treatment/Diagnosis/Quarantine of COVID19 Patient https://www.cpcb.nic.in/uploads/Projects/Bio-Medical-Waste/BMW-GUIDELINES-COVID.pdf


[i] Karnataka State Solid Waste Management Policy – Working Draft http://www.municipaladmn.gov.in/sites/municipaladmn.gov.in/files/kar_swm_policy_-_final_working_draft_2019_0.pdf

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