Biomedical Waste : India contends with over 56,000 tonnes of biomedical waste

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In the last year, India generated 56,898 tonnes of pandemic related biomedical waste.

Data sourced from the national Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) between June 2020 and June 2021 showed that the highest waste burden was incurred in Maharashtra, Kerala, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka.

Biomedical waste consisting of face masks, medical gear, needles, test-tubes, medical gowns, safety glasses, protective aprons, plastic shoes as well as gloves can be contagious if not disposed of properly. This is why proper biomedical waste management is crucial. Covid-19 has exacerbated said need, putting pressure on the existing biomedical waste management system.

As of May 2021, there were only 198 biomedical waste treatment facilities and 225 waste incinerators in India. In 2017, only 78% of the country’s then sum total of 200,000 tonnes of biomedical waste could be treated by said waste treatment plants. The remainder had to be handled by isolated treatment facilities or disposed of by burial.

The additional medical waste generated during a pandemic proves a strain on existing waste handling resources in India.

The Central Pollution Control Board, a statutory organisation providing technical assistance to the Indian Environmental Ministry, recorded a peak in medical waste generation on May 10 of this year, reporting the production of 250 tonnes of biomedical waste per day. Last year, the highest peak ranged between 180 and 220 tonnes.

Covid-19 serves to expose India’s waste processing difficulties, according to Aparajita Chattopadhyay, Professor at the Department of Developmental Studies at the International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS) in Mumbai.

The co-author of a recent study investigating the waste management gap in the biomedical sector, Chattopadhyay points out the lack of official guidance on the matter.

“What happens to disposable masks used by the public? What’s the ideal way of disposal? These are not clearly stated by the government. In reality, this waste is mixed with municipal waste”, she said.

These concerns are shared by Dr Girdhar Gyani, the director general of the Association of Healthcare Providers in India. To him, the lacking uniformity in the waste processing sector is due to the fact that the same agency collects both medical as well as municipal waste in the self-same vehicles, resulting in the waste mingling problem already described.

Yet there are also other reasons for the dilemma.

“Disposable cutlery and pillow and bed covers were considered Covid biomedical waste till September 2020”, said Dr. H. M. Prasanna, president of the Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes Association in Karnataka. At the onset of the pandemic, even food waste generated by patients with Covid-19 was treated as biomedical waste and subsequently incinerated.

Currently, only the likes of masks, gloves, cotton swabs, needles and syringes are classified as biomedical waste.

Government directed monitoring to check for the implementation of Covid-19 specific waste management guidelines as well as the establishment of temporary transit and treatment centres for biomedical waste have been suggested as possible solutions to the problem.

Ultimately, however, a transition to circular waste management facilitated by public private partnerships may be what is needed to truly stem increased waste flow, as proposed by select non-profits in the country.