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The effectiveness of the COVID-19 temporary solutions in waste management

Academic Discipline: Urban Geography
Course Name: Urban Geography
Assignment Subject: The effectiveness of COVID-19 temporary solutions in waste management, urban mobility and pollution
Academic Level: Undergraduate-3rd Year
Referencing Style: Chicago
Word Count: 1,885

Medical waste tends to incur a host of microorganisms that can infect hospital patients, healthcare workers, and the general public. In a public health crisis, infectious risks include the release into the environment of contaminant microorganisms (Meng et al. 2021, 226) as patients are treated in the hospital for COVID-19. Additionally, not segregating and not recycling waste is one of the causes which has led to environmental degradation in terms of pollution and the increase of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from decomposing waste.

As a result of the urgency of the pandemic, most countries were unprepared to tackle the mixed contaminated medical waste from COVID-19. This was a warning sign that the basic infrastructure and capacity to effectively and safely deal with medical waste, should be widely communicated (Battisti 2021, 2) in accordance with the requirements of relevant multilateral environmental agreements (Liang et al. 2021, 9). Interim solutions, such as segregating waste and using locally manufactured incinerators, were implemented to meet short-term needs for COVID-19 waste treatment. The aim was, firstly, to prevent the transmission of the virus (Kumar et al. 2021, 449), and secondly, to ensure the non-accumulation of surplus waste. In this paper, it will be discussed how the immediacy of the public health crisis required a radical paradigm shift towards solutions which serve to protect the environment (Garnett et al. 2022, 6) from the waste newly generated since March 2020, in a world that has already been struggling (Ghernaout and Elboughdiri 2021, 5) with waste management and waste pollution.

Waste management issue
The health risks as a result of direct contact with COVID-19-contaminated waste include potential negative impacts on human health if it is not disposed of properly, such as through the contamination of water and soil during waste treatment (Kumar et al. 2021, 449) and by air pollution, given that the virus particles are airborne (Meng et al. 2021, 227). When dumped into the natural environment or at public landfills, medical waste can lead to bacteriological or toxic contamination of the surroundings (Battisti 2021, 3), which can leak to publicly used resources. This concerns all the waste generated by the operation of a healthcare establishments (Garnett et al. 2022, 5), both at the level of its hospitalization and care services, and at the level of the medical, technical, and administrative services (Roy et al. 2021, 36). Namely, medical waste includes all waste generated in healthcare establishments (including clinics, medical and dental surgeries, establishments for the disabled and for the elderly), and by healthcare workers (on the premises and homecare), research centers, and laboratories related to medical procedures (Ghernaout and Elboughdiri 2021, 3) such as the research and production that went into creating the COVID-19 vaccines (Lazarus et al. 2022, 2). Responsible disposal of unused, expired or contaminated vaccines also had to be considered, especially as the number of doses that was purchased by countries as a precaution (Schaefer, Leland and Emanuel 2021, 903) could not subsequently be donated (Lazarus et al. 2022, 1).

As COVID-19 is transmitted by close contact with people carrying the virus, including asymptomatic patients, hospitals, healthcare facilities, and the general public produced more medical waste (Garnett et al. 2022, 2) from PPE, antibacterial products, and surface disinfectants. There was also a sharp increase in the amount of single-use plastics (Meng et al. 2022, 224) due to the fear of cross-contamination. The issue of this newly generated waste during the pandemic has taken on variable dimensions. Firstly, the impact is associated with the quantity generated (Battisti 2021, 2), and secondly, it concerns the importance of mitigating risks (Kumar et al. 2021, 452) for human health and the environment.

Temporary solutions proposed and implemented
Effective solutions for the control of waste throughout the pandemic included maximizing the use of available waste management and, at the same time, seeking to avoid any potential long-term impacts on the environment. To do this, medical and healthcare establishments looked into solutions to manage the increase in waste generation by maximizing the use of existing facilities (Rubab et al. 2022, 218). For example, establishments tested the immediate implementation of systems of safe disposal of used medical equipment, especially the segregation, collection, and management of medical waste (Roy et al. 2021, 35) according to the level of risk of cross-contamination.

In order to assess the environmental risks and potential solutions in this case, the spread of the virus particles outside of the healthcare establishments also had to be considered, such as the potential spread of disease and chemical contaminants in high-density urban areas or near abundant marine environments (Battisti 2021, 2). As aforementioned, the deposit of medical care waste in uncontrolled areas can have a direct environmental effect through the contamination of natural resources. Namely, unauthorized and improper treatment or incineration, or dumping of medical waste tends to pollute the resources (Liang et al. 2021, 9) and spread further in the ecosystem. As such, the solutions which were implemented to tackle this temporary but overwhelming surge of medical waste were based on the ‘polluter pays’ principle’ (Roy et al. 2021, 37), the precautionary principle’ (de Sousa 2021, 670), and/or the principle of proximity (Herfien et al. 2021, 39).

The ‘polluter pays’ principle requires all waste producers to be legally and financially responsible for the disposal of their waste, in a safe manner and without negatively impacting the environment (Roy et al. 2021, 37). Ensuring that waste disposal does not affect the environment is the responsibility (de Sousa 2021, 672) of each healthcare or medical facility that generates medical waste. On the other hand, under the precautionary principle, the potential risks of the medical waste generated during a health crisis are considered, which has the effect of obliging medical facilities (Karamanian 2021, 91) which generate considerate amounts of waste to apply high standards (Herfient et al. 2021, 40) for the collection and disposal of waste, to provide thorough training in safety and hygiene to all the employees that use PPE and other medical equipment (Rubab et al. 2022, 218), and to communicate the importance of responsible waste management (Kumar et al. 2021, 453) to ensure public safety and environmental protection. In turn, the principle of proximity refers to the treatment and disposal of hazardous biomedical waste on account of it being contaminative (Meng et al. 2021, 228). This means that the management of this waste has to minimize the risks for the population (Hefien et al. 2021, 51) and ensure that the spread of the virus is mitigated. For COVID-19-contaminated waste, this meant disposing of PPE and other medically used items locking in and storing waste (Herfien et al. 2021, 51) so that the virus does not permeate, and sending it off to a site which could responsibly disinfect or destroy this type of waste. An extension of this principle is that each country takes steps to properly dispose of all waste within its own borders (Liang et al. 2021, 13) in order to stop the spread of the virus and not minimize additional transportation emissions.

Analysis of effectiveness
To meet the urgent needs to protect the public in the face of the pandemic, the amount of PPE, additional medical treatment materials, and billion doses of vaccine administered worldwide produced thousands of additional tonnes of waste (Lazarus et al. 2022, 2). Subsequently, as a result of reports issued by environmental agencies, which stated that single-use masks tend to end up in the oceans as waste (Battisti 2021, 1), the most effective solution was to encourage and clearly communicate guidance on how to reduce waste overall in a safe manner, such as through the use of non-disposable PPE and their proper and frequent disinfection and treatment after use (de Sousa 2021, 672). One solution that was financed and executed in India, Italy, France, among others, was a wide initiative to recycle single-use masks by identifying and supporting collection and recycling as a contribution to the circular economy (Roy et al. 2021, 41).

Additionally, one of the temporary solutions which has shown to be the most effective was mapping the sources of waste generation to identify the changes in waste quantities (Garnett et al. 2022, 8) practiced in Canada, China, and the UK. The aim was to maximize the use of resources and the efficiency of waste collection and treatment. This included re-directing services (Herfien et al. 2021, 51) from the locations where waste generation has been reduced as a result of stay-at-home and physical distancing directives – such as schools, offices, shopping malls, and other public places – to the ones which were shown to generate more waste (de Sousa 2021, 674) affected by COVID-19 – clinics, hospitals, other medical establishments, home care centres, research and testing laboratories, quarantine centres, etc.

Evidently, the solutions which showed to be effective were human and financial resources, as well as assets intended for waste collection, allocated based on the need to address waste generation points (Garnett et al. 2022, 9), such as increased waste collection services, but also their responsible disposal and treatment (Karamanian 2021, 91), ensuring they do not end up in landfills and oceans. This included the temporary on-site storage and/or thermal treatment (Herfien et al. 2021, 50) of potentially contaminant waste, and adequate and safe sanitation measures (Meng et al. 2021, 227). A solution that was practiced in South Korea and the United States concerned items intended for multi-material recovery (Garnett et al. 2022, 5) stored temporarily on site for 72 hours, which is the known survival time of the virus particles (Liang et al. 2021, 13). After that, the collected materials were deemed to be safer to be handled, treated, and recycled.

Potentials for long-term solutions
From the start of the pandemic at the beginning of 2020, numerous organizations mobilized to provide the masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) which were proven to be effective to protect the public and mitigate the spread of the virus (Karamanian 2021, 90). In the wake of this, countries looked for ways to finance businesses which would produce the PPE nationally (Ghernaout and Elboughdiri 2021, 4), as opposed to waiting for overseas shipments which were delayed due to COVID-19 restrictions, and also struggled to keep up with a sudden and overwhelming demand.

Considering long-term prospects, the proposed solutions have to make it possible to set up effective local production and collection circuits (Roy et al. 2021, 41) for used single-use personal protective masks/equipment (manufacturing, distribution, collection, and safe transportation) from the medical and healthcare establishments, the general public, businesses, and so on. This would involve the collection points or drop-off terminals complying with health standards (Schaefer, Leland and Emanuel 2021, 904), and the sorting and treatment of waste for reuse or recycling (Meng et al. 2021, 229). The solutions as such must offer equipment for the integration into processes of material reuse (Garnett et al. 2022, 10) in order to prevent their accumulation in the landfills and oceans. The solutions should also ideally include disinfecting technologies for the safe reuse of PPE as part of a wide manufacturing process.

As a result of stay-at-home orders and the physical distancing measures, the disruption of basic urban services, including the collection, segregation, treatment, and disposal of waste, essential for hygiene and public health, posed new challenges (Kumar et al. 2021, 453) and required new and effective solutions. As a solution for properly disposing of waste collected from households and medical establishments that deal with COVID-19, municipalities had to boost their waste management services. Temporary changes to waste management operations had to be executed using existing resources, and by finding quick-impact solutions to maintain continuity and efficiency of operations (de Sousa 2021, 676). This put a strain on waste management operations and the beneficiaries of these services. Best practices and recommended guidelines on the treatment of waste included adapting municipal waste management to remedy this situation and help decision-makers develop a solid waste management strategy in response to COVID-19.

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