Covid trash is not always dangerous. Not everyone got the memo.

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Covid trash is not always dangerous. Not everyone got the memo.

Across Brazil, recycling plants stopped operating for months. In Uganda, a junkyard is short on reusable plastic. And in Indonesia’s capital, disposable gloves and face shields are piling up at the mouth of a river.

The increasing consumption of plastics and packaging during the pandemic has created mountains of waste. But because work at recycling facilities has come to a halt because of the Covid-19 scare, some of the reusable material has been scrapped or burned instead.

Also, high amounts of personal protective equipment are misclassified as hazardous, solid waste experts say. That material is often not allowed to go into the normal dustbin, so much of it is dumped in burn pits or as garbage.

Experts say a problem in both cases is that an initial fear – that the coronavirus can easily spread through surfaces – has created a difficult stigma for handling completely safe trash. Many scientists and government agencies have since found that the fear of surface transmission had grown wildly. But old habits die hard, especially in countries where waste-disposal guidelines haven’t been updated and officials are still busy fighting new outbreaks.

“Since there is no route of transmission through recycling, say, we’re still burning things instead of recycling because people are scared” of surface transmission, said Anne Wooleridge, who heads the international for health care waste. Leads a working group on the Solid Waste Association “You try to educate the entire world population in less than a year. It’s impossible.”

As for personal protective equipment, Dr. Woolridge said, it would have been unthinkable to see gloves and masks spread around the world before the pandemic. “But because everyone is saying anything with the pandemic is a medical waste, it puts a strain on the system,” she said.

Recycling rates around the world fell sharply last year as demand from manufacturers fell. In many countries where the recycling industry still operates by hand sorting rather than machines, in-person work was suspended over fears related to the virus.

For example, in Brazil, according to Abrelepay, a national association of sanitation companies, the generation of recyclable materials in cities increased by 25 percent in 2020, mainly due to an increase in online shopping. But recycling programs in many cities suspended operations for several months anyway, citing fears of surface transmission.

This had obvious human and environmental costs. A recent study found that during the suspension period, at least 16,000 tons less recycled material than usual was in circulation, representing an economic loss of about $1.2 million per month for waste picker unions. Another study said the one-month suspension was a missed opportunity to save on the amount of electricity used by more than 152,000 households.

“The suspension exposed the weaknesses of our system,” said Lian Nakada, a co-author of the second paper and a researcher at the University of Campinas. She and her husband stored their recycling at home for months to avoid throwing them away inappropriately, but they were the exception.

A solid waste specialist at the International Finance Corporation, James D. Michelson said recycling rates are now returning to pre-Covid levels in developed economies.

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“The numbers are getting back to normal and we are going from a Covid discussion to ‘Okay, let’s get back to circularity, sustainability, plastic recycling,’” Mr. Michelson said.

But in countries where recycling is driven by informal collectors, he said, lockdowns and outbreaks are still causing major disruptions.

Before the recent Covid outbreak in Kampala, Uganda, hundreds of people gathered at city dumps to collect plastic. They would then sell the plastic to middlemen, who later sold it to recycling companies.

But when the country went under lockdown this summer, restrictions on movement prevented trucks from picking up garbage in some districts. There was also the possibility of superficial transmission: officials said that Covid was on the rise as people were not washing their hands.

As of this month, only a third of the usual number of garbage collectors were at Kampala city dumps, said Luke Mugerwa, a representative of a local picker’s group. Some of the manufacturers who came in search of the recovered plastic were out of luck.

“Every day, they are always looking for plastics to buy,” Mr. Mugerwa said. “There is demand but there is little supply.”

Another challenge is the used personal protective equipment that has dominated the world since the early days of the pandemic. About eight million metric tons of plastic already enters the ocean each year, and experts fear that the use of PPE and other litter could make that situation worse.

Most PPE is not dangerous, but many countries still classify it as such, said Mr Michelson of the International Finance Corporation. This means that used gloves and masks are often actually piled together with hazardous medical waste and either treated at great expense – a waste of money – or disposed of in other ways.

Dr. Woolridge said, “If you have high volumes coming in behind your hospitals in these areas that don’t have the infrastructure, they’re going to set it on fire.”

The United Nations Environment Program estimated last year that health care facilities around the world were producing about 7.5 pounds of COVID-related medical waste per person per day worldwide. It said that in Jakarta, Indonesia and four other Asian metropolises, the overall health care waste disposal rate has increased by nearly 500 percent.

Some of that waste inevitably ends up as litter. In the Indonesian capital, a pre-epidemic pollution survey of a local river estuary by the Research Center for Oceanography did not reveal much PPE, but a recent survey found that equipment such as masks, face shields, gloves and hazmat suits accounted for about 15 percent of the pollution. are responsible for. .

“Even in Jakarta, which has the country’s largest budget for environmental management, waste is still leaking into the environment,” said Muhammad Reza Cordova, a scientist involved in the river survey. “What about other areas with smaller budgets?”

An emerging concern is that, as the flood of materials creates new pressure on local officials, syringes and other really dangerous medical waste could end up in the wrong places.

In the world’s poorest countries, this would pose a health risk to waste pickers. For example, Bangladesh already has thousands of people scavenging in landfills. But only three or four of the country’s 64 districts have facilities to safely dispose of used syringes, said Mustafizur Rahman, a solid waste expert in the capital Dhaka.

“These landfills are not safe or sanitary, so it’s really about environmental health and safety measures,” said Dr. Rahman, professor of environmental science at Jahangirnagar University.

And since syringes and vaccine vials are a valuable commodity on the black market, criminal gangs have an incentive to steal vaccination gear and sell it illegally in the health care system.

Late last year, Interpol warned that the pandemic had already “triggered unprecedented opportunistic and violent criminal behavior” around theft, falsification and illegal advertising of COVID-19 and flu vaccines. This warning came even before most of the world’s population got the Kovid pill.

“It’s a real issue in the market,” Mr Michelson said. “These vials have a huge black market value because you can fill them with whatever you want and sell them.”

manuela andriani, mukita suharatono And musinguzzi blanche Contributed reporting.

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