Segregation the answer to contaminated waste, experts say
After a steep decline early this year, coronavirus cases are again on the rise due to the fast-spreading Delta variant. The surge has led to an increased demand for medical products, resulting in bigger quantities of used personal protective equipment (PPE) like surgical masks, face shields, and gloves as well as tissues and antigen test kits (ATKs) in the rubbish.
Contaminated and medical waste has piled up across the country since the onset of the latest wave in April, most notably in Bangkok, Nonthaburi, and Rayong.
According to the Department of Health (DoH) figures, at least 294 tonnes of contaminated waste is being generated per day throughout the country, with a rise of 94 percent recorded between July and August 2021 alone. The forecast is that it will reach 330 tonnes at the end of August. And the amount of used face masks and ATKs is predicted to surge as the Covid-19 pandemic continues.
Since the beginning of the third wave of Covid-19, people are advised to use double masks to prevent the spread of the Delta variant – one disposable medical mask for the inner layer and a reusable fabric mask for the outer layer. ATKs, now approved for home use, are selling like hotcakes, snapped up by those worried that they may have Covid-19 and want to put their minds at ease.
The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) said on August 10 that its sanitation workers had handled 125,072 kg of contaminated waste. Of that amount, 63,958 was Covid-19-related waste with general waste making up the rest.
Last week, Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha voiced concern over the growing mountains of contaminated waste due to a surge of Covid-19 cases. He instructed authorities to strictly comply with infectious waste disposal measures and also stressed the need to educate residents on how to properly separate infectious waste.
However, Dr. Danai Teewunda, deputy director-general of the DoH, under the Ministry of Public Health says the figures in the report may not reflect the true scale of contaminated waste.
He added that authorities have found an increasing amount of contaminated waste from field hospitals, Covid isolation centers, and quarantine homes are thrown away with general garbage.
“Mixed garbage is being tossed daily. Patients and caregivers should sort their contaminated waste before dumping it in rubbish bins,” Dr. Danai said.
For effective waste disposal, separation is key
Some will ask why bother with segregating waste because the garbage collection truck tosses it all together anyway? But Dr. Danai stresses that proper segregation impacts lives, energy, toxicity, and more. Sorting out waste at the points of generation makes it easy for sanitation workers to manage and process. It can also reduce the risk of further spreading the coronavirus.
Dr. Danai suggests sorting waste into three types – contaminated waste that includes used face masks, test kits, face shields, gloves, and tissues; organic waste like food, meat, vegetables, or any kind of matter that easily degrades, and non-organic waste that includes plastic, glass, and paper.
Different types of waste require different processes of treatment, he said. Covid-related waste from hospitals, health care facilities, isolation centers, and quarantine homes can be treated the same way as regular medical waste, which is generally being burned. The waste is destroyed in special solid-waste incinerators in Onnut and Nong Khem districts, according to the BMA.
“Some waste, like the medical variety that is tainted with the infection must be safely discarded and processed. This is to ensure that contaminated trash doesn’t pose any harm to the public and the environment,” Dr. Danai said, urging people to strictly follow correct disposal guidelines, which prioritize waste separation.
The DoH guidelines suggest hospitals, healthcare facilities, and patients in home isolation centers sort out their medical and contaminated waste and disinfect the items with bleach, which can kill the Covid-19 virus and most germs. Double-bag the waste and tie it firmly prior to disposal.
For used masks, people can place them in a red double plastic bag and seal them firmly before dropping them in an orange-colored rubbish bin.
The BMA said it has been placed in orange-colored bins in more than 1,000 locations in Bangkok, such as health service centers, hospitals, schools, Bangkok City Hall, sports centers, youth centers, and fire stations. They can also be found in other public locations like parks, markets, temples, communities, department stores, and residential buildings.
According to experts, used rapid test kits should be handled as medical waste as well. They can be disposed of with used face masks and should be sanitized with alcohol spray or disinfectant solution, strictly separated from general waste, and firmly sealed in a garbage bag labeled ‘infectious waste’.
Dr. Danai said the DoH also directs authorities and garbage collectors to wear protective suits and use PPE such as medical masks, face shields, aprons, gloves, and long rubber boots when handling infectious waste.
Discarded masks, which are contaminated, can expose garbage collectors and scavengers to a high risk of contracting Covid-19 and further spread the disease.
Last month, a 73-year-old scavenger living in Nakhon Ratchasima was reported to have become infected with the coronavirus after being exposed to used masks while collecting and sorting plastic bottles. He spread the virus to members of his family and the community where he lives.
The incident prompted the DoH director-general Dr. Suwannachai Wattanayingcharoenchai to give advice to scavengers on how to protect themselves from coronavirus. The doctor advised them to always wear face masks and gloves and use a tool when collecting and sorting garbage. They should also try to avoid being directly exposed to garbage and refrain from touching the mouth, nose, and eyes while working as they could become infected with the virus.
To help reduce the amount of waste, Dr. Danai said the DoH also advised home isolation centers and Covid facilities to improve the services they provide to patients.
“They should set up water coolers in the centers and let patients use their own containers when drinking water instead of distributing bottled water. They may need to cut the use of single-use food containers. They should also sort out packaging waste,” he said.
Waste that has not been sorted at the source is difficult to manage. It’s very important that everyone gets involved in waste source separation.
“The waste management and sorting job will only be carried out effectively if everyone’s doing their part. The more waste is collected separately, the easier the treatment and the better chance of reducing the risk of spreading the infection.” Dr Danai said.
By Veena Thoopkrajae with additional report by Sukhumaporn Laiyok