Dr Avanish K Panikkar
The World Health Organisation declared the outbreak of the novel coronavirus as a global pandemic on 11 March 2020. As at the time of writing this article, we are approaching the first (hopefully last) anniversary of the identification of COVID-19 virus in Wuhan, China. While the social and economic impacts of this is in everyone’s mind and every country’s policies and budget papers, the third element of a triple-bottom-line assessment, the environment, should not be forgotten. Environmental consequences of COVID-19 impact various sides of our life, the planet’s life rather, such as changes in the type and quantity of waste, management and disposal of waste, use of energy due to varied work and life practices, use of fuel due to varied travel practices etc.
The pathetic treatment of our environment started long ago as eloquently and scientifically described in Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring and several other such work. We have perfected the art of polluting the environment – land, water and air – through burning fossil fuels to power our ever-increasing ‘development’, our throw-away culture, extensive use of single use plastics, un-paralleled dependency on natural resources and ‘extractive behaviours’ to satisfy our ‘wants’.
In addition, every now and then, a war or accident causes an environmental release of large quantities of smoke, dust, petroleum products, chemicals and other hazardous materials etc. to add to the chagrin. This would then require additional resources to make up and repair.
All this have increased our ecological footprint tremendously to the point that, we now have several indices to estimate the damage done and calculate how many earths we need to survive at this rate – now and in the future – such as ecological footprint, carbon footprint, carbon equivalent, plastic waste footprint etc., most of the terms being self-explanatory.
We also have several reminders, mostly set by the UN, to halt the anthropocentric activities and take an eco-centric stock-take – World Environment Day (5 June as set by the UN), Earth Day (22 April, the anniversary of environment movement of 1970), World Wildlife Day (3 March as set by UN General Assembly), Earth Overshoot Day (the day in each calendar year where humanity’s consumption for the year exceeds Earth’s capacity to sustain us), World Ozone Day (16 September, the international day for the preservation of the Ozone layer), World Soil Day (5 December), World Animal Day, International Day of Forests (21 March), World Water Day (22 March) ….. the list is endless and in no particular order.
In other words, we do not have an excuse NOT to spend a day, or at least a few minutes, to check what we are doing and how it can impact our compatriots including all other billions of species with whom we share this ‘pale blue dot’ which is the only home we know. A Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of the plethora of our wants and needs would yield confusing and confronting images of the situation, exacerbated beyond our customary imagination. The majority of us remain oblivious to the obvious, though the self-demonstrating changes have been happening around us.
Advances in medical science have offered us many fast-recovery options that require many plastic-based disposable medical products such as disposable syringes, intravenous tubes and bags, masks and gloves, overalls, sterilization pouch, laboratory analysis equipment etc. According to some research data from the USA, hospitals produce more than five million tons of waste each year of which more than a quarter is made of plastic. The packaging and equipment used in healthcare have to, strictly, adhere to medical grade plastic standards and be resistant to sterilization methods, radiation, static and other potential damaging situations. This means, the margin of error or impurity is pretty much zero. That also means, such materials have to be made from virgin resources and not from recycled materials; and their disposal also has to follow certain norms and procedures due to potential for pathogenic contamination to the environment (which includes people and animals).
‘Devastating’ and ‘disheartening’ were some of the words used in an ABC report in July 2019 on the insurmountable quantities of medical waste produced within Australia’s healthcare industry – they were mostly speaking of single use items. A lack of interest, support and accountability from the healthcare sector were also pointed at. Based on industry reports and in the professional opinion of this writer, the scale of the problem is not reliably quantified. The focus has been on reducing the risk of illness, which leads to cases where a single item from a package of single use items will be used and the remaining items, still sterilized, would be thrown out. The situation has reached a stage akin to the saying that the baby has been tossed out with the bathwater.
All the above happen in the routine pace of life. When an unprecedented situation eventuates, that throws the routine out of the window, and into chaos, there is a sudden shift of focus. There have been many studies reported in the past, more so in 2020, on the impact of a pandemic and epidemic on our material utilization and changes to the LCA of many of our resource streams.
Single use plastics, especially light plastics that one can scrunch with bare hands, are usually bestowed the ‘un-recyclable’ label, with the dungeons of a dirty landfill as its only fate, where it will survive the ensuing millennia, like a soul devoid of any divinity destined to forever endure the fires of hell. Single use plastics especially in the health sector has been on the agenda of waste management authorities.
The unavoidable increment in the quantity of single use plastic products required for personal protection and healthcare has disrupted and impacted the short-term and long-term waste management practices. Australian waste management industry had been set up with a reliance on several international processing industries, in the absence of a good domestic manufacturing industry. Especially in light of recent ban on waste imports by several receiving countries such as China, alternatives, or a new business plan, had been on the cards. A sudden shift in waste composition requires resilience and dynamic responsiveness. In addition to the quantities, the residual pathogenic potential of old and newly added waste materials (the latter mainly comprising masks, gloves, PPE overalls etc.) especially in residential, commercial and healthcare sectors has caused some concerns in the waste industry.
The energy footprint of producing and managing items including plastic packaging is also not to be forgotten. Plastic packaging is easy to produce and strict requirements for healthcare standards require this to be sourced mostly from virgin materials, not recycled sources. Countries such as Australia where a seemingly robust waste management industry exists, will expectedly be able to manage the added waste streams from widespread use of single use materials. Countries such as India where waste management practices are still immature and severely lacking for the new waste materials, where manual scavenging is still relied upon for recycling, will have its nascent waste industry overwhelmed.
Unbeknown to the healthcare industry, public littering from used masks and gloves has been captured in widely publicized (in social media at least) images at beaches, public parks and other open spaces due either to carelessness of the user or lack of proper disposal options. This would eventually find its way to a water body or other sensitive environment.
The incidence of plastic pollution on land and marine worlds had already put a strangle-hold on nature. This has already been established on a large scale by the unignorable examples of the great pacific garbage gyre (or the Pacific Trash Vortex, where a large collection of marine debris of human origin circulates the North Pacific Ocean mainly between Hawaii and California), birds and sea animals found strangled by bottles and other floating plastic debris on remote islands uninhabited by humans, and the billions of plastic straw under every harbour on this planet. Several of the propounded solutions have yet to be materialized to do justice to all the research and the discussions at international conferences.
The Sustainable Development Goals promulgated by the UN to ‘transform our world’ are still light-years away, to borrow an argot from popular lingo. As such, the vibrations and reverberations offered by a pandemic-pandemonium causes instabilities that the present generations are ill-equipped to manage, unless, as Einstein said, we start thinking differently to find new solutions for the new problems we created by thinking the way we did before.
The term environmental actions would bring to mind an image of placard-holding protests by an NGO. No, the confronting type of activism is not envisaged to be the answer or solution to this problem in context, though that helps to create awareness to a great extent among the generally un-interested public. Action by each individual human being is required for a collective solution to the problem.
In a medical setting, the service-receiver (a.k.a. the patient and their support personnel) are neither usually in a position to deny plastics nor in a mindset to give any priority to it – unlike you rejecting a plastic bag at the supermarket checkout or avoiding use of a plastic straw at the restaurant. So, change has to come from within the sector. While it is acceptable that during the start of COVID-19, no country in the world had the luxury of time to focus on how to manage the potential for increased medical waste, in the months that ensued, the luxury of time had been afforded to contemplate and consider better choices.
Alternatives to landfilling exist to convert single use plastics into useful products – such as light-weight composites used to produce prosthetics or into harder recycled plastics such as outdoor furniture / landscaping materials, where it will still survive for a long time but while serving a good cause. The advent of 3D-printing has ameliorated voids of manufacturing opportunities. Only thing required is a constant and reliable supply of relatively clean materials delivered to a processing unit or, outside healthcare sector, to collection points such as the red-cycle bins located at supermarkets. The single use plastic packaging and other materials need to be carefully managed for contamination, though.
In the good old waste management hierarchy, the top priority is to ‘Reduce’ (followed by Reuse and Recycle) – so it is pretty straight forward to think up ways to reduce the need for materials that will make our ever-expanding ecological footprint grow to a shoe size we will find too large to fit into anything. However, when it comes to the healthcare requirements especially related to an unprecedented pandemic, ‘reducing’ may not be a priority as much as saving lives and stopping the spread of the virus.
According to some publicly available data, almost 85% of waste from healthcare is noninfectious and a large portion of it can be recycled too; however, waste from a hospital environment is collected as comingled and disposed of together – landfilled or incinerated. As per reports, Western Health in Melbourne had identified a saving of $100,000 per year by replacing single-use items with some reusable items. Similar stories have been reported by Auburn Hospital in Sydney and Flinders Medical Centre near Adelaide. Non-reusable items such as truly-single-use saline bags are recycled by specialist recycling industry units. Nothing suggests a notion on the contrary even in the case of a pandemic, though additional care and controls would be prudent.
Considerable effort and financial backing are required from governments and possibly industry (perhaps based on the polluter-pays policy, or corporate social responsibility from medical and pharmaceutical producers) to assist in source-separating the materials and safety managing them appropriately.
A positive example would be that the Canadian government has decided to award grants for developing solutions for the manufacture of compostable disposable surgical masks and respirators to be used by healthcare workers and for the efficient and cost-effective recycling of disposable PPE waste generated in the Canadian healthcare sector. Need more like this!
The Bright Side
It is definitely not all doom and gloom. Though a ‘toxic positivity’ is unrealistic, there is plenty of silver lining around the Covid clouds. During the pandemic, many workplaces have restructured their worker placement habits, if practically possible, to reduce the number of personnel in constricted spaces such as offices and meeting rooms. Most of the blue-collar jobs have continued as they are mostly outdoor – although the boom in the construction industry, which employs such personnel, in NSW and many parts of Australia certainly has been impacted by the uncertainty and restructuring. This included many businesses advising their workers to work from home as much as possible, reducing face to face meetings and, most importantly in the context of this article, the commute. Removing a large number of cars off the road, which has been the buzz-phrase of environmentalists, has resulted in a reduction in vehicular environmental emissions.
There have been several reports and academic studies on various cities and industrial economies previously choking on smog, having clearer air and resultant amelioration of breathing issues for residents. Even several countries within the European Union normally with stringent emission requirements have noticed a change. Data analysis reported on Germany, with a high infectious rate and a marginal mortality rate, indicated lower environmental pollution level, which perhaps relate to the earlier introduction of significant policy initiatives as part of their SARS outbreak response.
An article in the journal Science of The Total Environment (Aug 2020) reported: “Recent data released by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and ESA (European Space Agency) indicates that pollution in some of the epicenters of COVID-19 such as Wuhan, Italy, Spain and the USA etc. has reduced up to 30%.” A lock-down in one-third of the cities in China, the birthplace of COVID-19, has been assessed and reported to have contributed to significant improvement in air quality in those areas in comparison to previous years’ data.
Closer to home, a marked reduction in air pollution and emission levels has been reported owing to less industrial activities (with its own negative connotations) and less number of cars on the road – even following a summer of extreme bushfires that pushed the particulate matter in the air to unprecedented heights. The ‘restricted human interaction with nature’, induced by COVID-lockdown is also supposed to have reduced air and water quality impacts during this time in India, albeit to a minor extent as the rise in pollution had been rapid due to the fast paced industrialization during the recent decades.