As a result of Covid-19, a huge amount of solid and biomedical waste has been generated, be it gloves, surgical masks, PPEs, disposable table cloths or hand sanitizers. In addition, there is electronic waste as more people have purchased gadgets for their education or job. A lapse in the management of these pollutants can have an enormous negative impact on the health of citizens, writes RITIKA MAKESH.
THE outbreak of the novel coronavirus has brought life to a standstill in most parts of the world. It has adversely impacted lifestyles and caused economic slowdowns. While the lockdowns and shutdowns have rendered thousands jobless and hit tourism, the only silver lining is the reduction of carbon emissions and greenhouse gases.
Many countries reported improved air quality, clearer waters, decreased deforestation and more animal/bird sightings. At the same time, there has been a drastic increase in household solid waste and biomedical waste, posing new challenges.
Waste management connotes the presentation and discussion of information on solid waste generation, characterisation, minimisation, collection, separation, treatment and disposal. It also includes the formulation of policy and dissemination of information related to the economic and environmental impact of waste disposal.
The classification of waste is as follows: source of generation (household, agricultural, biomedical or industrial) and nature (hazardous and non-hazardous). Solid waste management is the most important service any municipal corporation provides and is one of the largest single budget items for cities. It is a gargantuan task as the waste has to be collected in the most optimal way, keeping in mind economic, environmental and other societal aspects.
Solid waste falls completely within the local government’s purview. If waste is not effectively managed, then other services such as the provision of healthcare, education and transportation are also drastically affected.
A lapse in the management of this noxious pollutant has an enormous negative impact on the health of citizens due to the unhygienic environment around them.
Health & Economy
When a large number of people fall sick, there is a direct impact on the economy and funds have to be apportioned for healthcare–this downstream cost, objectively speaking, is much higher than what it would have taken to properly manage and dispose the waste in the first instance.
In India, Article 21 of the Constitution, through judicial developments, has broadened the ambit of right to life to include the right to a dignified and decent life. This covers good health and a pollution-free environment.
This was iterated in Subash Kumar v. State of Bihar (1991) and Virendra Gaur v. State of Haryana (1994). Under Chapter XIV of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, concerning “offences affecting public health, safety, convenience, decency and morals”, solid waste is treated as a public nuisance and punishable. This, combined with Section 133 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973, which deals with the removal of public nuisance, has contributed significantly to urging the timely removal of solid waste by municipalities.
In Municipal Corporation of Ratlam v. Vardichand (1980), the Supreme Court said that the Corporation was bound to take steps towards maintaining proper sanitation in its area of jurisdiction. In Dr. BL Wadhera v. Union of India (1996), the Court pronounced that residents of Delhi have the “statutory right to live in a clean city” and that no matter what, statutory authorities cannot cite lack of funds as an excuse to escape their obligations.
In Almitra.H.Patel and Anr v. Union of India (2000), a writ was filed relating to solid waste disposal management in the key cities of New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Calcutta and Bangalore. This was a landmark case as the guidelines that were laid out resulted in the notification of the Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000
Different Categories of Waste
Biomedical waste, on the other hand, comprises discarded biological or non-biological waste that cannot be reused (hospital waste) and what is generated during the diagnosis, treatment or immunisation of human beings, animals or in research activities or in the production or testing of biological, and categories mentioned in Schedule I, of the Biomedical Waste Management (BWM) Rules, 2016.
There are three international agreements and conventions which are particularly pertinent in BWM, environment protection and its sustainable development and therefore, should be kept in mind while making waste management policies. These are Basel Convention on Hazardous Waste, Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), and Minamata Convention on Mercury.
Combined, these three broadly aim to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects of generation, management and disposal of hazardous wastes, specifically clinical wastes from healthcare in hospitals, health centres and clinics. POPs, on the other hand, accumulate in the fatty tissue of living organisms and cause damage. The Convention provided certain guidelines on best practices that include reduction, segregation, resource recovery and recycling, training and proper collection and transport.
The Minamata convention wanted to regulate mercury containing medical items like thermometers and blood pressure devices by phasing out certain medical equipment. The Bio-medical Waste Management Rules, 2016, in India were notified based on the terms of these conventions. The rules have extended their ambit to include vaccination and other medical camps. They also aim to train workers better to ensure that there is proper waste segregation at the source and to prescribe higher standards for incinerators to reduce the emission of pollutants.
It is important for us as a global community to be more cognizant of these regulations as there is an unimaginable amount of solid and biomedical waste that is being generated as a result of the pandemic. Most of the plastic waste that is generated such as gloves, surgical masks, PPEs worn by medical practitioners, the extra sheets used in hospitals or the disposable table cloths being used by restaurants, containers of hand sanitisers or hand wash liquids are additional contributors.
There will also be a rise in the amount of electronic waste generated shortly as more people have purchased gadgets for the purpose of their education or job.
While it is a good thing that such kind of precautions is being taken to contain the spread or that technology is indeed accessible to a larger number of people, there is a jarring loophole that has to be handled with great maturity and care before it is too late.
Environment enthusiasts did cheer at the positive impact consecutive lockdowns had on controlling climate change or global warming, but the real question here is about sustainability. Another significant point is how Covid-19 presents a very different range of issues depending on the amount of privilege an individual possesses. Undoubtedly, the most vulnerable section of society has been hit the hardest in more ways than one.
The long-term goal should be to combat rising emissions by adopting measures that do not have the economic or social impact that lockdowns have while ensuring that there is equity in terms of access to healthcare or education for all. Actions taken by individuals and institutions should be backed by policies that support and promote climate ambition by providing a strong, dynamic and enabling economic structure.
When it comes to the planet, we must learn to accept that when a real crisis strikes, borders, politics and a few squabbling leaders will not save anybody or anything.
(Ritika Makesh is an intern with The Leaflet and is a final year LLB student at Symbiosis Law School, Pune. The views expressed are personal.)