The world today is already witnessing a surge in environmental pollution owing to biomedical waste. On one hand, the nation is struggling to contain the spread of the Novel Coronavirus, which has infected over two million people, and on the other, the rise in biomedical waste generation is testing India’s waste management capacity.
What is Biomedical waste?
World Health Organization defines waste generated by medical institutions or research facilities during any medical activities as Biomedical and Healthcare Waste. The biomedical waste includes wastes of sharps, infectious, pathological, pharmaceutical, chemical and radioactive nature.
Need to manage Biomedical waste:
In India, studies have estimated the average hospital waste generation rate ranges between 0.5 & 2.0 kg/bed/day and annually about 0.33 million tons of waste (Mc Veigh et al., 1993). While in the current times of Covid-19, it is seen to be burgeoning.
Hospitals in their usual course deal with segregation, management and storage of biomedical waste as directed by Central Pollution Control Board, but the situation in times of Covid-19 is typical due to its highly contagious nature, transmission cycle and multiplicity of the virus. Apart from the risk of contact transmission, improper disposal practices of biomedical waste can cause adverse environmental effects including soil and groundwater contamination, killing beneficial microbes in septic systems, physical injuries through sharps, etc. Biomedical waste if not handled in a proper way, is a potent source of diseases like HIV, Hepatitis B and C, and other bacterial diseases.
Recent experiences from Covid-19 disease outbreak highlight the need for safe biomedical and healthcare waste management for infection prevention and control.
India faces the challenge to treat more than 4.2 lakh kg of biomedical waste per day. The lack of trained healthcare workers also limits separate collection and scientific disposal of biomedical waste for urban local bodies. The capacity constraints of in situ incinerators and central treatment facilities result in illegal dumping of wastes into suburban areas, streams, marshlands, etc. which raises public health concerns. Also, the ability of the virus to remain active on surfaces for a prolonged period emphasizes the need for sterilization of even general hospital waste and PPEs of health personnel before disposal to reduce the risk of sanitation workers and ragpickers.
Methodologies for treating hazardous waste:
Biomedical waste needs to be treated within 48 hours. Dumping and incineration are the two widely practiced methods. Apart from incineration, which involves burning gadgets at high temperature, other technologies which can be used are-
(a) Autoclaving- It is a low heat thermal process where waste is brought in direct contact with the steam for such duration that materials are disinfected.
(b) Chemical Disinfection- Chlorine is used to disinfect the biomedical waste. Under this method wastes including solid, sharps liquid, etc. are treated using chemicals.
(c) Microwave Irradiation- This method is appropriate when waste contains water. The waste is rather cut into smaller pieces. Also, this treatment can melt syringes and it effectively kills 99% of the micro-organisms leaving minimal waste.
(d) Thermal inactivation and Secured Landfills can also be considered as viable options for biomedical waste management. As per the guidelines of World Health Organization, burying of collected waste in a close pit with a lump of clay or geo-synthetic lining at the bottom can be practiced during emergencies for safe disposal of hospital waste.
A policy-level paradigm shift into a strategic, state-of-the-art medical waste management is required. An effective communication strategy, awareness and education can help to reduce biomedical waste problem in India. With public health and safety taking center stage during pandemics, highly automated waste treatment technologies with minimum operator involvement may be prioritized.
‘Recycle Man of India’ is recycling biomedical waste especially single-use masks, head cover, and non-woven PPE into eco-friendly BRICKS. Similarly, designing more eco-friendly products such as bioplastics and funding technologies fostering circular economic principles should be the focus of the future to ensure sustainability.
From an economic point of view, there is a need to build a resilient socio economic-environmental pathway to avoid or successfully sail through similar future crises.
Khushi Gupta is a Masters student of Public Policy at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, O.P. Jindal Global University.