Written by Vattem Sai Shreya of Vellore Institute of Technology
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in general is the protective layer of clothing, goggles, or any other kind used to protect one from infection or injury. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, use of PPE has become essential. Recently many states banned usage of plastic totally for a better and cleaner environment but are now forced to use PPEs which are made entirely out of polyethene to protect themselves. India did not manufacture PPEs until February but since it has become the need of the hour, India is manufacturing on a large scale to cover the requirement of the entire country. Generally a PPE kit contains gowns, gloves, shoe covers, head covers, masks, face shields, face eye protectors, and goggles. Doctors treating COVID 19 patients are at a greater risk in contracting the virus from their patients, thankfully the PPEs act as a shield and considerably protect them from contracting the same. Doctors tend to be in PPEs for about 15 hours a day without removing them because once removed they cannot be reused. Here comes the problem of safe disposal of PPE kits. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has set guidelines for safe disposal but, how far is it put into action is the question which is unanswered.
Originally the guidelines state that wards where the patients are kept in isolation, a precaution double layered bag needs to be installed for collecting waste and also such bags should be able to carry a considerable amount of waste without any leak. A separate bin named COVID-19 bin should be maintained and stored temporarily in the storage room. Such medical waste collected should be lifted directly from the wards and dumped into the common biomedical waste treatment disposal facilities (CBWTF) collection van. Since these kits are made out of polythene, when they are not disposed properly they are discharged in the environment and end up filling the oceans and landfills which can lead to the contamination of drinking, surface, and ground waters if such landfills are not properly built. In the long-run, landfills leak and pollute ground water and other adjacent environmental surroundings making waste management very problematic. The laws and regulations controlling the operations of landfills are often insufficient at monitoring and administrative the different types of wastes which are medical waste, municipal waste, special waste or dangerous waste. They require decades to decompose.
The risk of infection spreading through biomedical waste among the sanitation workers also increasing because they are not fully aware of the consequences while coming into contact with the used . Several media reports have shown that in certain places the medical waste is mixed along with normal garbage and dumped in open which is very dangerous for people living around such open areas and the garbage collectors who clean them without knowing exactly what is present in the garbage. Common people also lack awareness as to how to dispose the gloves, masks and other such items which they use for domestic purpose, they are supposed to be stored separately for 72 hours before they are mixed with the normal garbage at the time of disposal. Hence when garbage is not segregated, workers put such unsegregated bags as a whole into the incineration plants. This reduces the working capacity of the plants because they are supposed to be used only for the purpose of discarding and treating medical waste and not any other waste. Insufficient incineration or the incineration of unfitting materials results in the release of pollutants into the air and in the generation of ash residue. We can often see PPE kits on our streets and beaches; this waste is piling up and will invariably add to the existing environment crisis. AIIMS, the foremost healthcare facility of India is facing serious hitches for disposal of these PPE since March. Often hospitals themselves end up mixing PPEs along with other garbage generated in the hospital due to overcrowding.
Clearly, the problem of disposal of such PPEs needs a solution.
PPEs are largely made up of polypropylene (plastic). Instead of leaving it to be decomposed by microorganisms over decades or have them incinerated only to release toxic gas into the air, the material can be chemically decomposed with the usage of heat. What is being proposed is the PPE waste treatment through “pyrolysis”. There are three stages in the course – initiation, propagation and termination. Firstly, free radicals are at large left into the air after the heat is turned up. These free radicals are then fragmented into smaller radicals and molecules. Finally, the unstable radicals are revolved into stable molecules by linking reactions. The idea with PPEs is to turn its chiefly plastic waste into more valuable material. The transformation into bio crude, a type of synthetic fuel, will not only prevent the severe consequences to humankind and the environment but also produce a source of energy .The outcome is a liquid fuel that can be used to produce energy. Liquid oil which is the outcome of pyrolysis has been used widely in gas turbines, boiler systems, generators, and Stirling engines. During the pandemic, polymers began to be treated as a valuable material for the production of personal protective equipment. This emphasises how corporations can play a key role in delivering safety along with decreasing pollution. Reusable PPE kits could be produced in place of single use PPE kits. For instance, Vadodara’s Sure Safety Limited Company has manufactured India’s first reusable PPE. Seeing the risk of infection, what differentiates this reusable PPE from Single use PPE is the raw material like multi-laminated fibres. There are many instances in which disposable PPE garments are not contaminated by anything other than normal dirt and dust. In those cases, it’s worth the time and effort to contribute in a disposable protective clothing recycling program in order to reduce the large environmental effect of all that ending up in landfills where they will never biodegrade.
Hence we can come to a conclusion that in such difficult times, doctors and the front line workers are doing their best no doubt but, at the same time disposing waste generated especially medical waste needs to be given utmost attention in order to save the environment and not add to the already existing environmental problems. Considering the mammoth situation and foreseeing many more unseen catastrophes our government should chat out a comprehensive strategies in dealing with the bio medical waste in parlance with the WHO, IMA, ICMR and so on to arrive at a sustainable and viable waste treatment plans for a developing economy like ours.
Image courtesy: The Guardian