Masks save lives, but they also create a massive waste problem.
The pandemic has resulted in an exponential increase in the amount of plastic waste, and much of it is not properly segregated or disposed of in Nepal.
And that’s just the beginning of the story. What is concerning is not only the amount of waste produced but also the careless manner in which it is disposed of. For waste workers, this has increased their fear of becoming infected.
“No one divides their household waste into biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste.” “This is dangerous for us, and it clearly shows that people don’t think twice about what happens to the masks or gloves they used while infected, one of the waste workers said.”It also demonstrates that people are unconcerned about our work and safety.”
Several studies have found that the Covid-19 coronavirus can survive on plastic for up to 72 hours, and discarding used masks and gloves with other household waste may strengthen the chain of transmission.
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“The use of surgical masks and other plastics has unquestionably increased.” It can be frightening at times to have to pick up surgical masks because you never know who might have used them. But we can’t afford to stop working. “We have families to look after,” said Urmila Deula, a 40-year-old sweeper hired by the municipality of Lalitpur.
According to a World Bank research from September 2020, Nepal dumps 2,600 tonnes of garbage into landfills per day. According to the research, organic garbage accounts for 56 percent of total waste generated, followed by glass (16 percent), paper (8 percent), and plastic (13 percent). However, more recent information on the rise of plastic pollution is currently lacking.
“Due to a lack of resources and manpower in Nepal, statistics on how much plastic consumption has increased since the outbreak has yet to be tallied. “However, merely looking at the rising number of day-to-day use of medical masks, gloves, and sanitizer bottles since the pandemic began, it is safe to claim plastic waste has increased since the pandemic began,” said Dr. Buddhi Sagar Poudel, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Forests and Environment.
Aside from a shortage of manpower and funding to segregate waste, there is a greater issue: a general lack of public awareness about waste disposal.
“People don’t think about separating their home waste, and as a result, items like masks and gloves end up in landfills,” Poudel explained. He believes that the Health Ministry and the Environment Ministry should collaborate to address waste segregation, particularly in the case of medical waste created in the home.
The Solid Trash Management Act of 2011 and the Health Care Waste Management Guidelines of 2014 are two pieces of legislation that require waste separation. “The local body shall prescribe to separate the solid waste into at least organic and inorganic including distinct kinds at its source,” says Section 2.6.1 of the Solid Waste Management Act. According to the Health Care Waste Management Guidelines, health institutions should not combine non-risk garbage with other types of waste and should dispose of their medical waste on their own.
Larger institutions, such as Bir Hospital, Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital, and Patan Hospital, have the resources to appropriately dispose of the garbage. Private hospitals, such as Lalitpur’s Alka Hospital, are also attempting to do so.
“We autoclave Covid-19-related medical waste to decrease the possibility of the virus spreading through medical waste,” said Navaraj Thapa, manager of Alka Hospital’s lab.
However, not all hospitals follow the requirements, and some municipal governments and households also ignore waste separation.
“We have issued instructions requesting that infectious waste produced in households, such as surgical masks, clothing, or other materials used by Covid-19 infected persons, be kept separate for 72 hours before being mixed with other types of waste produced in the household,” said Sarkar Bir Shrestha, in charge of the Okharpauwa landfill site. “However, we have no mechanism in place to ensure that the public follows our directions.”
An easy solution to this problem would be to replace plastic with sustainable, environmentally acceptable alternatives. Washable, reusable fabric masks, for example, may be beneficial. According to a study on cloth masks, textile items with less than 300 TPI (threads per inch) have a filtering efficiency of more than 80%, providing good virus protection. The article also suggests utilizing two layers of cotton or flannel masks with at least 100 TPI as an alternative to single-use masks. According to the paper, a well-fitted multi-layer mask combining a layer of 600 TPI cotton with electrostatic filtering achieves an efficiency of over 90%, comparable to that of N95 respirators.
“In addition to encouraging the use of cloth masks, another solution to the problem of increasing plastic waste would be to incinerate medical waste or dispose of it properly in structured landfill sites,” said Stuti Sharma, Doko Recyclers’ partnerships and advocacy lead.
However, experts say that in the long run, the adage’ reduces, reuse, recycle’ remains the only sustainable way to combat rising plastic pollution. Individuals, organizations, hospitals, and local governments must all play a role.
“The risk of Covid-19 spreading increases when there is a lack of community participation,” said Prakash Pathak, managing director of Scrap Recycle Foundation. “The authorities must develop an alternative to surgical masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) to reduce the amount of plastic produced at the source.” But, more importantly, everyone must accept responsibility for sorting their waste.”
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Credit: Barsha Khanal