How Swacchata ‘didis’, ward committees and local volunteers in small towns are showing the way to waste management during COVID-19

Decentralisation is the most effective way to manage waste, even in a health crisis such as the present. Towns like Panchgani and Ambikapur are setting examples for all.

Today, as the entire world is fighting the war against COVID-19, one debate has constantly risen. How will the developing world shape up over this period?

One thing has clearly emerged as our cities and systems fight this pandemic: we need better sanitation services – both solid and liquid waste management as much as we need effective health care systems.

By 2050, two thirds of us will live in cities. However, our urban centres are grappling with the effects of our current take-make-waste economy. Under this linear system, cities consume over 75 per cent of natural resources, produce over 50 per cent of global waste and emit between 60-80 per cent of greenhouse gases. Today, waste management has become the need of the hour. It always was, but today, it has become the most important chain in combating and making our cities resilient against COVID19.

Effective waste management will push for better hygiene and environment; also, it is important from the perspective of worker safety. In cities in India, where millions of informal livelihoods dependent on waste are compromised, it will also help in ensuring that there is no spread of infection in informal communities.

Many countries have seen many-fold rise in special waste in the wake of COVID.  For instance Wuhan, the epicentre of the pandemic, with a population of 11 million, generated over 12000 tonnes per day of municipal solid waste (MSW) which is majorly managed by centralised facilities; this then went into two landfill sites, five incineration facilities and two pre-treatment for recycling and allied processes. With the city becoming the epicentre of COVID-19, the major challenges were how to deal with solid waste disposed of by patients isolated at homes; how to manage hospital waste and how to dispose of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, masks, etc.

In order to manage this, the city municipality worked on improvising collection and transportation. Due to the lockdown, it was observed waste generation actually decreased and over the lockdown period, approximately 6800 TPD of MSW was collected on a daily basis. To avoid secondary contamination of waste, the municipal landfill site was closed and all this waste went for incineration. Disinfection was carried out 1-2 times in all waste facilities.

Also, during the epidemic period, approximately 5200 tonnes of biomedical waste was collected and disposed of primarily in incineration facilities to avoid contamination. Segregated collection was pushed with separate collection for masks and gloves and other items.

There were also awareness campaigns held in order to sensitise people to not discard their PPEs with other dry waste. The frontline waste workers and sanitation staff were trained and provided with incentives/temporary subsidies to improve their enthusiasm towards work in difficult times. High risk workers were to stay in isolation facilities with accommodation and dining that was arranged by the municipality. Also, their body temperatures and health check ups were done on a daily basis. Local recycling and jobs were majorly hit in this period, as no further sorting of dry waste was happening.

While Wuhan opted for incineration, the city of Vienna, did not cut its existing segregation and recycling mode. All modalities in Vienna continued even in the COVID-19 period, for instance, houses were to give segregated waste-paper, plastic, newspaper, aluminium and metal cans, wet waste etc., However, all the reuse and repair shops (a new trend across Europe, wherein, residents can get their products repaired and also offer their old products still in use for sale) were closed.

The frequency of collection was increased to three different shifts in order to minimise exposure and contact.  All waste treatment plants that comprise of an incineration plant, composting plant and a landfill site were operational. The city also has 16 separate collection centres, where dry waste can be dropped. These centres were closed for a month, from March to April; however, presently 14 centres have been re-opened to the public.

The challenge at home

For India, the challenge is even higher considering the vast informal sector that thrives on waste-related modalities. An estimated wastepickers’ workforce of 1.5 to 4 million in our country perform waste collection, sorting and recycling. If they are not informed or their safety issues remain unaddressed, their health can be put at risk. Thus, there is an urgent need for citizens to be sensitised about segregated and protected disposal of household waste.

As far as possible, dry waste should be quarantined within the premises for an appropriate time period before disposal (for instance a household can give segregated dry waste in either once or twice a week). Organic waste must be managed via in-house composting methods. Further, masks and gloves used by households must be kept either in a yellow bag or marked separately and handed over to the collector; at no cost should this get mixed with other dry waste.

For biomedical waste management, the operational efficiency of common biomedical waste treatment facilities (CBMWT) needs to be evaluated as many such facilities are running in a compromised state. The regulatory authorities must ensure compliance and inspections to facilitate better operations in these facilities.

As per the CPCB annual report, 2017-18, there are 1,87,160 no. of Health Care Facilities (HCFs) having 18,99,269 beds capacity and bio-medical waste generation of about 517 Tonnes per day. A total of 199 Common Biomedical Waste Treatment Facilities (CBWTFs) are operational (23 under construction) in the country for treatment and disposal of BMW besides 15,281 number of HCFs have their captive treatment facilities.

These CBWTFs and captive treatment facilities are involved in treatment and disposal of 501 Tonnes/day (93%) out of 517 Tonnes/day of BMW generation.  However, the actual numbers are even higher considering many states do not do proper inventorisation for biomedical waste.

Also read: Where should the waste from quarantine centres and COVID isolation wards go?

What could be a more sustainable approach?

Decentralisation. Decentralised waste management, which means treating your waste closer to the source, has shown us the way even in times of crisis.

For instance, in Panchgani, Maharashtra, no COVID-19 cases have been reported so far, though it is a tourist city very close to Pune, which is one of the hotspots. Panchgani is a model city as far as decentralised waste management is concerned, and the municipal council has won several accolades for the same.

Under the circumstances created by the pandemic, the local administration has constituted a ward level committee (comprised of 2 nurses, 2 volunteers and 1 sanitation officer) to screen houses for any COVID-19 infection. The city already has a decentralised waste management system in place and is a zero landfill city, which means, households have been handing over segregated waste over the past few years.

Presently, the Panchgani Hill Municipal Council has asked its households to give masks and gloves separately, every 15 days, which then go to a biomedical incinerator. Also, regular disinfection is carried out on a daily basis. The municipal council has imposed a fine of Rs 500 INR for any resident who steps out without wearing a mask.

Ambikapur, in Chattisgarh, also has no cases. In order to sensitise its people on COVID-19, the municipal corporation made use of the local women led co-operative which looks after waste management. The 447 Swacchata Didis not only go door to door and collect segregated waste (wet, dry and domestic hazardous waste) but also sensitise households on the importance of wearing masks and washing hands.

The municipality has also trained these workers to make local sanitisers (as per WHO guidelines) and cloth masks, which are used for internal use and is also being sold at nominal rates. The seventeen decentralised material centres where plastic is further sorted into over 150 fractions are also sanitised twice a day.

For Kerala, where households are well adapted to segregation and household composting, the pandemic period has lessened the burden of waste for many municipalities. Households in major cities like Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Alappuzha are treating wet waste at source (in aerobic bins, biogas, pipe composting), and only dry waste is being collected by municipality. For most of these cities, the involvement of local self-help groups, informal sector and volunteers is further helping in strengthening work on the ground.

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