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Why we need the red colour bin

Masks and gloves have become our new normal. But how can we dispose of these safely at home?

Biomedical waste should be kept apart from wet and dry waste
Biomedical waste should be kept apart from wet and dry waste (Photo: Alamy)

As the covid-19 pandemic is in its sixth month, most people around the world have accepted the fact that masks are here to stay for a long time—probably even as a permanent fixture in our lives. The virtues of wearing the right kind of mask to protect ourselves as well as others are common knowledge now. But relatively less known are the best practices involved in disposing of the masks and gloves we use at home. And this collective lack of awareness, or callous indifference in some cases, is putting the lives of millions of sanitary workers at risk.

It’s not just personal protection equipment (PPE) but any kind of medical waste—sanitary napkins, diapers, drips, syringes, catheters, cotton swabs, insulin ampoules—that could pose public health hazards if not disposed of safely and hygienically. Yet, even if citizens have the best intentions, is the waste-disposal system in India effective in ensuring no pilferage happens?

Manvel Alur, CEO and founder of the consultancy organization Environmental Synergies in Development in Bengaluru, points out that there are stringent rules and regulations for collection of biomedical waste from hospitals and clinics. Only a few agencies are mandated to handle and dispose of such waste, following strict protocols, in order to avoid pilferage. But the picture is different when it comes to biomedical waste generated at home.

“Biomedical waste should be segregated separately from wet and dry waste, then placed in a separate bin marked as ‘Hazardous/Sanitary’ waste," Alur says. “In Bengaluru, for instance, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) advises citizens to use a red-colour bin to identify such wastes."

Such a way of handling biomedical waste is a stipulation of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). In reality, however, segregation at source is hard to ensure. Even if people care enough to put dry and wet waste in separate bins, everything is dumped into the same truck at the time of collection, and a lot of the waste ends up in a landfill. What’s worse is the risk to sanitary workers, who have to sort and separate biodegradable waste from other dry waste at collection centres.

It is estimated that urban India produces about 62 million tonnes of solid waste every year. According to a Mint report from 13 May, 120 containment zones in Bengaluru alone have generated 80 tonnes of biomedical waste since the outbreak of covid-19. Mumbai, one of the worst affected cities in the country, is exhausting its capacity to handle the additional burden of such waste—it has “only enough headroom to handle 4-5 tonnes more than its total capacity of 75 tonnes," the article noted.

If people living in isolation or home quarantine use and throw away medical waste indiscriminately, or along with their dry waste, sanitation workers become more exposed to chances of contracting covid-19 as well as other diseases that may be spread through such contact. PPE, which has been in short supply for qualified medical staff, is unlikely to reach these essential workers in most places. Even if they are given gloves and masks, these are not protection enough when they are exposed to the threat of infection for a large part of the day.

“The solution is to come up with a protocol for management of household hazardous waste and impose it firmly," says Satish Sinha, associate director of the Delhi-based environmental NGO Toxics Link. It is not that such attempts haven’t been made before by the CPCB already. But implementing the recommendations at a local level requires committed municipalities, alongside the will of the people.

“Until the situation changes, one option is to go only for reusable masks, which can be washed in soap and water, then dried in the sun," Sinha says.

At present, the safest method to get rid of the disposable variety may be to wash it first, wrap it in paper and then put it in a bag designated for sanitary waste. For, just as masks and gloves can save lives, they can also endanger people.

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