How to Continue Waste Management Services During the COVID-19 Pandemic
While the current COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly spreading in some countries, thus intensifying its impact upon the world’s healthcare systems and economy, it starts to slowly decrease in other countries. During this time, ensuring reliable and safe municipal solid waste management (MSWM) services provision is a must for all local governments to protect public health and contain the spread of the virus.
Already before COVID-19, 2 billion people worldwide were lacking access to waste collection and 3 billion to controlled waste disposal. Ensuring waste collection for everyone is even more pressing during this health challenge. However, many waste management operators or local governments lack experience, technical knowledge and financial resources to ensure the safety of their workers. Furthermore, countless informal workers are meeting their daily ends by picking up and selling recyclables from the waste stream. These informal workers are particularly vulnerable to infect themselves, as well as to the economic consequences of for example a complete lock down.
Additionally, the amount of healthcare waste being generated is increasing dramatically. Some cities are not equipped with facilities for safe treatment and disposal of medical waste, resulting in open burning or dumping of the same. This way anyone, even children, can easily access it. Cities in low to middle income countries, where waste management service provision is immature and with a high percentage of informality in the waste and recycling economy, are particularly at high risk.
Therefore, UN-Habitat (Waste Wise Cities Campaign) and the Wuppertal Institute are organizing this series of webinars, under the Urban Pathways Project, to support local governments and work together in combating COVID-19.
Challenges and Opportunities of Municipal Solid Waste Management
The first webinar of the series How to continue waste management services during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is jointly organized by UN-Habitat and the Wuppertal Institute for Environment, Climate, Energy under the Urban Pathways project, started with outlining the challenges and opportunities of the COVID-19 crisis for waste management.
After some welcoming words from Andre Dzikus, Chief of Urban Basic Services Section at UN-Habitat, and Henning Wilts, Director of Circular Economy unit at the Wuppertal Institute, the two main speakers of the programme shared their insights:
First, Kate Medlicott, Team leader – Sanitation and Wastewater Water, Sanitation Hygiene and Health Unit of the WHO, highlighted the importance of provisioning safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and Solid Waste Management (SWM) as global COVID-19 response. Her key messages were:
- Frequent and effective hand hygiene is the most important prevention measure (WHO is currently increasing its Hand Wash Campaign; ideal materials in order of effectiveness: water and soap OR alcohol based hand rub, ash & mud, water alone)
- Effective inactivation on surfaces can be achieved within 1 minute using common disinfectants (Higher temperature, high and low pH, and sunlight all facilitate die-off; risk of transmission of COVID-19 virus from faeces of an infected person appears to be low)
- Hygiene promoters should be considered “essential service providers” and given free movement and necessary protection
- Existing WHO guidance of drinking-water and sanitation services applies to the COVID-19 outbreak
- Waste from confirmed COVID-19 patients is considered as infectious, so standard procedures for infectious waste should be maintained and reinforced.
- WASH and SWM should be fundamental to all country preparedness and response plans (e.g advocate and invest to ensure inclusion of WASH and SWM in health care facilities, in schools, in public settings);
Good WASH achieves co-benefits, including preventing millions of deaths each year caused by other infectious diseases.
The two main documents, to which she was refereeing during her presentation can be found here:
- Water, sanitation, hygiene, and waste management for the COVID-19 virus
- Recommendation to member states to improve hand hygiene practices to help prevent the transmission of the COVID-19 virus
The second speaker, Antonis Mavropoulos, President of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), gave a strong presentation on COVID-19 effects on MSWM. On a general level, he finds that COVID-19 highlights the importance of science and data driven decision-making and that better and global cooperation and coordination is needed to overcome such a crisis. While in some aspects this can have a unifying element, he pointed to the fact that the current crisis also fragments our world, highlighting thus again the importance for using this crisis to shape the future (global cooperation, international aid, etc.).
Antonis stressed the fact that pandemics are urban and that MSWM is a major urban service, protecting public health and the environment. The current crisis should help to recognize this and governments need to put proper measures in place to facilitate safe service delivery.
For MSWM he listed four key priorities during pandemics:
- Service continuity without creating extra risks for public health by improper waste management,
- Additional precautions for formal and informal waste management workers,
- Adjusting recycling activities to avoid cross-contamination and infections,
- Safe treatment and disposal of the increased quantities of healthcare and medical waste.
He finalized with highlighting the importance of MSWM in our daily lives – which becomes more obvious than ever in these special times.
You can download the strategy guide “Waste management response to Covid-19” by Waste Wise Cities Campaign of UN- Habitat here.
The second webinar of the series How to continue waste management services during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is jointly organized by UN Habitat and the Wuppertal Institute for Environment, Climate, Energy under the Urban Pathways project, focused on the adaptations of the waste management systems, that were and are necessary in the context of the COVID crisis.
The first speaker, Paolo Marengo, from ACR+ (Association of Cities and Regions for sustainable Resource management) summarized the observed trends of their member cities(mostly in Europe) concerning waste management and COVID-19. There have been general adaptations to waste systems (e.g. safety & health measures for workers, reduced on-demand and reuse/repair services), different sorting rules at home, as well as changes to waste collection (e.g. frequency of collection) and treatment (e.g. prioritization of incineration, rely on automated systems as much as possible. He also highlighted, that:
- transfer and storage of waste are affected in most countries due to lock-downs,
- during lock-down source separation – even if slightly adapted – keeps working well if continued,
- cities with less developed waste management systems should focus on worker’s safety and clear communication to citizens.
Donovan Storey, Deputy Director & Global Sector Lead of Green Cities (GGGI – Global Green Growth Institute) first highlighted the negative impacts as a result of many “known unknown” (e.g. survival of the virus on surfaces) and also the emergence of contaminated waste stream:
- Due to the pandemic situation there is an observed resurgence of plastic (increase in single-use items)
- waste management systems, especially the 3Rs, are ruptured due to banning of reusable products, closed recycling centres, transport and workforce disruption
- Potential stigmatization and discrimination of waste pickers as a potential virus carrier needs to be addressed
Donavan finished with some opportunities (“short-term negatives with potential longer-term gains?”), e.g. a raised awareness on the importance of clean and healthy (public) environments and waste management as essential public good.
After the general presentations the participants Vienna and Wuhan shared their experiences regarding the adaptations made to their waste management system.
- Nicola Hermann, from the Municipal Department for Waste Management, Street Cleaning and Vehicle Fleet in Vienna, reported that most waste management operations continued during the lock-down in Vienna, also because the whole waste chain is managed by the city. For a limited period of time the recycling centres had to close, but half of them were able to reopen with additional precautionary measures. Also, street sweeping services have been reduced and office staff works mostly from home. She highlighted the importance of continuous communication to citizens, which helps to have motivated waste workers and the support of the citizens.
- Ms. Zhang Cheng (Responsible for MSW classified collection, Wuhan) reported that the outbreak of COVID-19 posed great challenges to MSW management, starting from the question of how to dispose of the household waste of infected people to special waste from hospitals. There had been almost a 50% drop in MSW generation in Wuhan due to the lock-down and collection services had to be adjusted accordingly and waste collection containers, transport vehicles, etc. disinfected regularly. Additionally, they closed the landfills and sent all the waste to the incineration plant. The solid waste from hospitals was disposed following the rules of medical waste – during the epidemic period this was more than 5.200 tons. Wuhan also set up special collection containers for epidemic related solid waste, , e.g. face masks.
To protect the waste workers, they were given protective equipment and training on safety measures, e.g., disinfecting the operating tools and equipment. Body temperature was taken every day and operation cycles organized in a way that no cross-infection could occur. Furthermore, Wuhan had designed incentives to improve the workers motivation and team stability.
DI Nicola Herrmann
Actually currently there is no evidence from a scientific point of view that there are some spreading of the virus through the waste, but since there are no evidence about the dispelling there are no evidence about the other way around. So it’s important to keep the focus on safety measures and let’s say that there are, we have seen that different countries are taking precautions to limit the potential infectious load in the waste, so maybe asking people to store their waste for a while before put the waste out for collection or also storing the waste before sorting and treatment processes in recycling centres because in many recycling centres there are a lot of manual operations. I think that we cannot still say that there are evidences about the spreading but it’s true that in order to make sure that workers are safe and they can work in quite and safe business as usual way, we need to provide them with accurate information about these safety measures. So some of these precautions like storing the waste for a while can be in a way going to the direction to reduce the potential infectious load even if fortunately so far we don’t have any specific evidences about it.
That’s a difficult thing to know. I think there are two different things. There’s the science and there’s the perception, which are driving things. You know as fantastic presentation from (mujer) pointed out. The focus then was on that direct medical waste, the waste that had come into direct contact with known people infected with COVID-19. So in their case the waste that was seen as the most contaminated and which needed to be separated out and incinerated and transported in certain ways. Would the waste workers as well been supported in certain ways? Was that which had direct relationship to those that carried the virus and those who are looking after them? What we know less of other forms of potential waste products plastics, cardboard, paper tissues and so on and we have some guidelines from WHO on the lifespan of the virus in a form that can be transmitted on some of those materials and services but it’s not completely clear with respect to the science on that. What we see then is the perception driving and filling that gap and that is what Paolo mentioned. For example storing waste in the home but in several cities, for example, people are being discouraged to store their recyclables at home but to get them out as soon as possible for fear that that could contaminate people in a household. So there’s a lot of mixed messages and I guess in that vacuum of clear science and information there’s a sense that potentially all products at anytime could become potential contaminants and potentially toxic. In that respect I think all waste streams have been treated in such a way, which is driven by that vacuum of information and the fear of waste streams. I think that’s a gap of information that I think waste management professionals and those that are working in the waste management system during this pandemic need to help fill for the authorities.
So we need information as quickly as possible for households, informal sector workers and Pickers so we can maintain an effective waste management system that protects the health of all of those in it.
No, actually we had really good motivation throughout all of our employees during the whole time and we even internally experienced a minimum of sick leaves during this time. So everybody was really strongly bounded together and team spirit I would say was on top.
Donovan: Of course there are waste management systems everywhere. They range from the highly informal and sporadic right to the formalized system so I think one of the challenges here is to identify those workers that are involved in collection often of different materials whether it be organic waste or plastics or tins or even electrical waste then to be able to support their continuation of their safe practices. It’s a very difficult thing to tell people engaged in the informal sector where they’re living on a daily income approach that they cannot pick or collect recyclables and sell them. So I think the best thing for cities is to recognize waste pickers and to recognize that the informal sector is playing a critical role and to reach out with basic and essential information two-way speakers about managing their services and the safest way possible for their health and also to support them with respect to the use of gloves and masks and other basic materials to ensure that they can continue on with the healthiest possible way. I think recognizing the role of the informal sector is a very important part of the overall strategy towards COVID-19 with respect to global waste systems.
Paolo :I fully support the point of Donovan. Maybe another interesting point is the communication to citizens. Even if there are no developed collection systems, the rollover raised the awareness among citizens about the importance of their habits also to respect the collector she is very important. So the two sides of a communication towards citizens and preserve safety and health of the workers is a very much important. So I think we should take stock of these periods to emphasise the importance of our habits in terms of protection of environment but also the health of the workers are involved in this very crucial sector.
Nicola: I also want to emphasize that communication is key especially in places like this. It’s very important that the people who are actually out there collecting and recycling need to be informed on what is now safe and unsafe for them. The second thing is that if somehow possible you should focus on just removing the contaminated waste from landfills as the first thing. So make sure that this is not accessible for people who are usually waste picking on landfills and so on. If there’s no incineration in place like in Wuhan – maybe at least have a separate area or something. I think that’s a minimum measurement it should be taken.
The third webinar of the series How to Continue Waste Management Services During the COVID-19 Pandemic, which is jointly organized by UN Habitat and the Wuppertal Institute for Environment, Climate, Energy under the Urban Pathways project, focused on workers’ safety during the COVID crisis.
The first speaker, Carlos Carrion-Crespo, from ILO (International Labor Organization) highlighted the fundamental role of waste workers to halt pandemics. The ILO conventions safeguard the rights for workers: permanent employees mostly engaged by municipalities and with access to benefits; and the informal & manual sanitation workers – some of the most marginalized poor and abused members of society. There have been some measures taken during COVID-19 by governments, however mostly for the formal workers: provide PPE & hygiene measures, reorganize teams (rotations), disinfection of containers, etc. Although countries have also taken measures for the informal sector, they are limited on providing training; initiatives to address the situation for workers are missing.
Areas for improvement: policy, legislative, and regulatory reforms; development and adoption of operational guidelines; advocacy and empowerment of sanitation workers.
- Carlos concluded that we need to
Recognize – the importance of the work
- Formalize – provide access to basic social rights services as well as other benefits
- Organize – forums and mechanisms to give voice to the claims of workers (formal and informal).
For the second presentation about how waste workers can protect themselves, four speakers gave insights from different cities and countries:
- Samuel Le Coeur (Director of Amelior Association) described the situation in Paris, France, where due to the lock-down the activities of around 500 waste pickers and scrap dealers are paralyzed. The focus now is to mobilize the civil society and provide food to these workers. However, these “palliative measures” show the urgent need to formalize the work of the waste pickers.
- Taylor Cass Talbot (WIEGO) from Portland, USA, mentioned the current situation with regards to the extended producer responsibility. The state of Oregon declared the service essential but stopped enforcing the legislation. As a result many deposits were shut down. The city of Portland jumped in and started supporting waste pickers: providing PPE; maintaining specific work groups; advocating for changes in legislation for a more resilient system.
- The third speaker, Federico Parra (WIEGO), from Bogota, Colombia, highlighted that even though the waste pickers organizations in Colombia have succeed in a few topics and can continue to work, the workers don’t have the support of the state for providing PPE and other infrastructure to avoid contamination, like hand wash stations and disinfection tunnels at the entrance of the warehouses.
- The last speaker of this presentation, Carolina Palacio (FACCyR – UTEP), briefly described the situation in Argentina. Even though Argentina has a National Decree according to which waste pickers are essential workers, plenty of the municipalities don’t recognize it. On the other hand, the industries demanded for waste pickers services to continue as they need the materials for production. Faced with collapsing dumpsites, there has been a claim for a National Inclusive Recycling Plan to face the crisis (current and post pandemic). Carolina finished by emphasizing the importance of an inclusive Extended Producer Responsibility system that finances the work of waste pickers and is resilient.
In the last presentation Fernando Granizo from Quito’s Environment Secretariat explained the special governance for waste management in Quito (two public companies in charge of waste management & waste pickers national network). Although the city is working together with 10 waste pickers association (about 300 waste pickers), there are around 3200 informal waste pickers active in Quito, who are not part of any association. They pose a challenge for the city, as it is difficult to contact them. Fernando explained that the environmental secretariat developed a series of protocols and guidelines with regards to waste management in the context of COVID-19 like:
- Biosecurity protocols for operational fronts – Recommendations to citizens in order to help waste pickers
- Waste management guidelines for the construction sector in the context of COVID19 – after the crisis, it will be the first sector to operate again (post pandemia planning).
Lastly, Fernando highlighted that they are currently working on Guidelines for waste pickers association to work with municipalities, Guidelines for informal waste pickers and that they are looking for alternatives for elderly waste pickers.
Important messages from the webinar:
- There is a need for social dialogue mechanisms, so waste pickers can speak about their needs, as well as institutional mechanism for them to have a voice. Encourage the informal sector to establish institutional mechanisms.
- Promote the correct separation of waste at the source level (support of the government)
- COVID crisis: the municipalities are going to suffer tremendously; their revenues, the ability to subsidize waste management is going to reduce => national governments will have to support municipalities & also the private sector will have to adapt to the new scenario
- Need to find an inclusive way to finance the informal activities – mandatory (by the government), considering the local context and stakeholders’ engagement
- The stigmatization of waste workers needs to be addressed, politicians should lead the way.
Presenters and presentations
Managing Medical and Special Waste
The fourth and last webinar of the series How to Continue Waste Management Services During the COVID-19 Pandemic, which was jointly organized by UN-Habitat (Waste Wise Cities) and the Wuppertal Institute for Environment, Climate, Energy under the Urban Pathways project, focused on medical and special waste management during the crisis.
Introducing to the topic, Graham Alabaster, from UN-Habitat, outlined that waste management is a basic service often forgotten. However, the COVID-19 crisis made people realize even more the importance of solid waste management, its relation to water and sanitation and therefore the risk of several diseases if not well managed. He highlighted that medical waste management is often problematic and expensive. Thus, it often ends up being mixed with hazardous waste and disposed off with other municipal solid waste. This is practice is very dangerous, especially for the workers as well as the environment. There is a need to understand the complex interaction between local authorities, service providers, NGOs and communities in general. At last, Graham highlighted the struggles of many municipalities to raise revenues to deliver basic services.
The first speaker of the panel, Keith Alverson, from UN Environment’s International Environmental Centre, started stating that a lot of diseases are related to improper waste disposal, such as open burning. He then went into the details of institutional healthcare waste, pointing out that its primary component is actually plastic, although the composition can also change depending on the region, as this is a local issue. There is also a changing volume of healthcare waste per patient-generated per day which trends to increase as countries’ income becomes higher. He then emphasized that uncontrolled dumping of healthcare waste needs to be addressed, especially in the middle of a crisis. Unfortunately, the WHO guidelines for masks supply to countries does not include anything about their disposal. Therefore, it’s clear that there isn’t sufficient guidance on COVID-19 related waste in the cities. In the following, Keith highlighted some of UN Environment’s basic principles regarding waste monitoring, policies, and existing technologies. He stressed that as the pandemic will last a long time, it is important to do a comprehensive assessment of technologies and select the ones most appropriate to each country for healthcare waste management. Lastly, he highlighted some topics which are being impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, such as increased volume of packaging (will this lead to a long-term reversal on our progress on reducing single-use plastics?); urban-mixed densification; urban mobility, contingency planning; and raised the question: How will societies build back better?
The second panellist, Swati Singh Sambyal from UN-Habitat, first detailed the sources and types of COVID-19 related waste. She mentioned that collection, handling and transportation becomes highly imperative, however, there are some complex challenges: number of stakeholders which are responsible for waste management implementation, segregation of biomedical waste and specific treatment technologies, how to manage waste at quarantine centres, disposal of masks and gloves, worker’s safety (especially the informal worker), treatment of liquid waste and effluents from hospitals. Swati reported that in India there is a huge gap on how much biomedical waste is generated in each state and that the healthcare facilities are not connected to a treatment facility. She raised two concerns regarding the collection capacity of local governance bodies and the safety of sanitation workers. Then Swati shared some successful decentralized waste management experiences from municipalities in India, to illustrate how the decentralization of urban services has been effective in India.
The last speaker, Dr. Samuel Zemenfeskudus from Addis Ababa City Health Bureau, spoke about the situation in Ethiopia’s capital. He reported that Ethiopia doesn’t have a comprehensive strategy for waste management, the infrastructure is weak and not been enough investments have been made for the treatment of solid and liquid waste (the latter is commonly disposed in water bodies). Dr. Samuel finished by summarizing some of the mitigation attempts that were taken for COVID-19 related healthcare waste: development of new protocols, on-site waste management, provision of IPC and PPE.
Presenters & Presentations
Graham Alabaster (UN-Habitat)
It is rather too early to see any trends in health conditions for those who handle wastes. Given that the virus can survive on some surfaces for several days, it is important appropriate PPE is used.
To date only virus pregments have been isolated from wastewater. There has been no recorded transmission through groundwater. There is however a risk with droplet formation and aspiration of excreta from those infected. It is therefore technically possible the circus could be transmitted this was, especially if the droplets were inhaled or got into the persons eyes.
Well maintained municipal or medical incinerators operating above 800 degrees C, with appropriate flu gas treatment technologies, are generally safe. However, UNEP does not recommend burning in general, since most burning generates carcinogens and other toxic emissions. A full list of technologies is available in our compendium report here
UNEP’s Covid information and recommendations can be found here
As I mentioned in my talk, all solutions both urgent and longer term will be determined by local needs and what is already available locally. Please have another look at the ‘guidance’ slide in my presentation. Over the longer term (months) I recommend using the UNEP-IETC Compendium of technologies for treatment and destruction of medical waste to assess appropriate technologies: find here
In general, yes, and following existing local guidance for disposal of PPE’s.
There is no need for an ‘if’ in this sentence. This is happening in most countries right now, so the question is very appropriate. This said there is no single answer to the question. The duration of survival of the virus is highly variable depending on a large number of environmental variables and can range from a few hours to many days.
850-1100 degrees Celsius
This is going to the usual MSW stream and processes, however, major informal activities are haulted, recycling has been deeply impacted, and most of informal sector have undergone job losses which is a concern.
In present times, always use sterile, waterproof gloves. All waste designated as medical needs to be stored and disposed of in bags that won’t leak and in containers marked or labeled with different colours. Disposable scalpel blades, needles, syringes and other sharp things must be put into puncture-proof containers; Waste that’s contaminated with blood or other bodily fluids should be double-bagged before it’s handled, stored or moved;
It is working well majorly in cities where such models have been in place since decades, for cities which are new to this, ofcourse there is some issue of coordination, but it clearly has made man-management, resources and process use more efficient if we were to compare it with cities that have centralised systems, decentralised systems have hugely benefitted cities. May like to read this
I feel it is important considering the successes we are seeing in the current paradigm, it is ensuring better and more effective interventions against COVID19 responses. It can surely be considered as an important variable in highly dense populations for planning and decision purposes.
As per India’s CPCB guidelines, household biomedical waste from quarantined households needs to be wrapped in yellow bags and to be handed over by the municipality to authorised common biomedical treatment facility.
We are not sure, they will most likely have their own guides and protocols on this matter.
Since the start of the international and national outbreak , the municipality has been engaged in emergency response as it pertains to health matters, and the overall livelihood of the people. The threat of special and medical waste has only recently come to light and it is never too late to improve upon such things but we believe it needs concerted efforts from all stakeholders.