Covid-19 introduces new waste stream

Henry Bazira Mugisha

What you need to know:

  • Among the measures that governments adopted to curtail the spread of the disease included restrictions of movement of people within and across borders, standard operating procedures (SOPs), social and economic lockdowns.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a global pandemic after registering 188,000 cases spread across 110 countries.

This declaration meant that all countries, affected or not, were mandated to put in place measures to curtail the spread of the virus. 

Among the measures that governments adopted to curtail the spread of the disease included restrictions of movement of people within and across borders, standard operating procedures (SOPs), social and economic lockdowns.

The SOPs included social distancing, frequent washing of hands, avoiding bodily contact, wearing of face masks and use of alcohol-based sanitisers to clean hands, work places and staircases. 
Each of the measures had immediate positive and negative impacts. The positive impact was mainly reduction in the spread of the disease. 

However, the negative is multifaceted and has far-reaching short, medium and long-term social, economic and environmental impacts that majority of the countries were unprepared to handle. 
Of particular importance are the face masks and sanitiser bottles that are generated as waste.  

This article focuses on face masks and plastic sanitiser bottles to highlight the unforeseen and unplanned for waste problem during and after the rise of SOPs. 

For example, there are different kinds of face masks made of various materials that are generally not easily biodegradable and poses a serious waste and environmental problem that currently majority of the people and planners are unaware of.

Assuming that each face masks weighs 20gm and that an individual uses four masks every week, this would mean that every person generates 80gm per week or 320gm per month or 3,840gm per year of face mask waste.

Considering that there are 3.4 million people resident and operating in Kampala every day, it means that the amount of face mask waste generated would be 277.6 tonnes per week or 1,110.4 tonnes per month or 13,324.8 tonnes per year. 

Assuming Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) is using eight-tonne trucks to haul the waste from the city to the landfill in Kitezi at a cost of Shs800,000 per truck to pay for fuel and truck workers, it would require 1,666 trucks per year to haul the waste at a cost of Shs1,332.8 million. 

This is not a small amount of money, considering that it was originally not budgeted for - a cost that must be met by the taxpayers. This further worsens the cost burden on the citizen who will have purchased the face mask at varying prices.

There is a littering culture among Ugandans, meaning that not all the face mask wastes would be disposed in gazetted areas easy to reach by KCCA. 
This means that KCCA must deploy additional staff to clean the city and enable collection of the littered waste, which is an additional cost.
If not properly disposed, the face masks and sanitiser bottles will worsen the waste pollution problem in the cities.

I suggest the following: I) Urban authorities across the country become aware of and plan for the new face masks and sanitiser bottle waste streams. II) Educate city dwellers on how to handle used face masks and sanitiser bottles. III) Encourage industry to recycle face mask and sanitiser wastes.

Henry Bazira Mugisha (PhD fellow), is the executive director of Water Governance Institute.

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