Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic and, subsequently, the Malaysian government enforced the Movement Control Order (MCO) or lockdown.
Yet another Consequence of the Pandemic: More Waste
On March 18, 2020, the government announced the MCO which has since been extended and relaxed into the Conditional MCO up to June 9, 2020. During the MCO, only essential sectors were allowed to continue their operation. The rest were required (and expected) to stay indoors at all times. It was not surprising really to see that the MCO triggered panic buying.
People scrambled to stock up on necessities such as toilet paper rolls, canned food, and shelf-stable food items; normally wrapped in convenient and disposable packaging. In between food items and necessities, consumers were also buying personal protective equipment (face masks and gloves) and personal hygiene products (disinfectants, hand wash and sanitisers) as precautionary measures. According to the Waste Management Association of Malaysia (WMAM), waste generation in residential areas increased by 20 to 30 per cent since the implementation of the MCO.
Delivery services are also gaining popularity, particularly for cooked food, fresh produce, seafood, and poultry which, of course, increases the need for the convenience of plastic packaging. In addition to that, there are also stores that disallow customers to bring and use their own reusable bags and containers for fear of contamination.
This consequently increases the consumption of single-use coffee cups, utensils and polystyrene food boxes, among other things. With individually wrapped items once again becoming the norm, so is the sudden and significant increase in waste. Environmental experts believe that the pandemic is not only devastatingly harmful to public health and safety, but also crippling the undivided efforts of governments and NGOs in fighting the endless waste wars.
As of now, there are no official statistics yet on how much waste has been generated globally. But the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) is certain that the numbers are definitely more than the previous estimation. Taking this into consideration, it appears that each country has its own and different perspective. For fear of unmanageable municipal waste, Spain, Italy and France have allowed recycling facilities to continue their operation regardless of the dropping recycling rates. As for the United States of America, Brazil and Canada, they have only recently begun considering to include recycling facilities as essential services during the lockdown. As for Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, they are not receptive to the idea of allowing recycling companies to operate, relying instead on their local governments to manage municipal and household waste.
Moving Forward: The New Norm for Household Waste Management
While the medical community and frontliners do have proper standard operating procedures for disposal of contaminated face masks, gloves, and protective suits, the same cannot be said for the rest of the population. Most items will simply end up in the dustbin, along with the milk cartons, instant noodles packets, disinfecting wipes and many other single-use items that will remain in landfills for a very long time. If we are not careful, the aforementioned “new norm” would cause a level of waste generation that will be unmanageable.
Each one of us has a crucial role to play especially in this time of crisis. For a start, education and awareness is important. Complete instructions on how to dispose used face masks and gloves are easily accessible online.
At home, a designated bin for used face masks and gloves may be a good idea. Put the bin outside the house and disinfect it properly after emptying the contents. The used face masks and gloves should be kept in separate bags from your other waste and placing a label on them may help the waste collector process them in a proper and safe manner. Yes, the new norm we are currently in will see an increase of waste because of the face masks and gloves, and the least we can do is to learn to dispose them correctly and safely after use.
Grocery shopping during the COVID-19 pandemic will be challenging. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the virus can survive up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless-steel surfaces, four hours on copper and 24 hours on cardboards, but there is no evidence that the virus can be transmitted through food and packaging – yet.
This, however, shouldn’t create unwarranted paranoia among consumers as they can easily take control of their own selections when shopping. Consider buying from vendors who offer flexibility in terms of using your own reusable containers and bags. According to Greenpeace International, reusables are more sanitary and convenient to clean than commercial plastic and cardboard packaging. Although the main concern isn’t about waste reduction, rest assured, we’re halfway there.
When waste reduction is not practical, acquaint yourself with proper household waste management. Waste of all sorts should always be kept separated accordingly and sealed in good quality garbage bags. Separate recyclable and non-recyclable materials. Items that are soiled with blood and body fluids such as tissues, cotton pads, band-aids, diapers and such should be disposed in the most sanitary way possible. Again, consider disinfecting everything before you put out your trash for collection and place labels to it for extra precaution.
Finally, talk to your local waste operators on how you can help them to manage your household waste safely in this time of crisis. Good communication is a key to effective decision-making, especially if the decision affects public safety and health in general.
Unquestionably, there is an urgent need for the government, particularly the local authority, to step up their game in safeguarding the citizen’s public health and safety throughout this vulnerable phase. Raising awareness on waste management during the pandemic to the public is imperative to reinforce safe practices, particularly waste segregation at the household level.
Additionally, allocating a waste disposal facility for used face masks and gloves in public places is practical to avoid any risk of contamination from improper dumping and to contain environmental pollution. Recycling operators should be eyeing innovative solutions that are able to manage a waste upsurge and the different types of waste generated. Comprehensive refresher training for sanitation workers is also seen beneficial to ameliorate their modus operandi in managing waste during a health crisis.
Most importantly, the government waste management policy and strategy must be formulated prudently to align with the dynamic efforts of Malaysia’s anti-COVID-19 measures.
COVID-19 has hit all our lives in myriad and unanticipated ways and it surely has had a profound impact on the way we handle our waste, bringing with it a multitude of environmental, social and cultural challenges.
Yasmin Badrum is with the Faculty of Administrative Science and Policy Studies, UiTM Sabah, and is currently a PhD candidate in Geography (Waste Management) at University Malaysia Sabah.