The Next Crisis: Trash

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As the whole world fights the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, another crisis is anticipated to emerge — infectious medical waste.

Disposable medical masks, latex gloves, and one-time-use test kits have already started swimming in our oceans. Opération Mer Propre, a non-profit environmental organization based in France, expressed concern after finding medical waste along the coast of the French Riviera. Its founder, Laurent Lombard, warns that if the influx of medical waste continues to accelerate, we are looking at a future where the Mediterranean will have more masks than jellyfish.

Lombard could be exaggerating, but the estimate from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) seems to echo his concerns. According to the report, Manila City alone is expected to produce about 280 tons of infectious medical waste per day — that’s 600% higher than the average pre-COVID-19. In only 60 days, we can be looking at 16,800 tons of trash that almost certainly will end up in the ocean and landfills if not addressed properly.

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ADB suggests that governments act quickly on the transportation and disposal of these wastes, as well as dutiful tracking and labeling thereof. Mismanagement in hospitals and households can lead to misdirection of medical waste to landfills (among other kinds of trash) or end up in bodies of water on top of the 13 million tons of plastic that already pollute the ocean every year.

The government must act wisely, too. Incineration, or the process of burning in a controlled environment, of trash is an easy fix. However, incineration can possibly cause more harm than good. For one, it violates RA 8749 or the Philippine Clean Air Act, which prohibits large scale “burning of municipal, bio-medical, and hazardous waste,” as this process releases toxic fumes that harm the quality of air that we inhale.

In an article, a triad of an environmental activist, and healthcare and waste management experts warns that burning plastic medical waste can further add to the health problems our country is already facing. Their statement was prompted by the March 26 memo from the Environmental Management Bureau that essentially allows the incineration of COVID-19-related medical supplies.

What a Waste!

Climate change activism picked up its course over the last decade. Just last year, the world saw millions of young people ditch classes on Fridays to march for their future. New figures of the movement, who appear front and center on television shows, magazine covers, and social media timelines, have been reigniting the clamor for immediate action against climate change and global warming.

We have already done so much work in lessening the use of plastic in our personal lives because we know the problems it causes for the environment. Countless information campaigns, use of reusable over single-use items, zero or low-waste lifestyles, and even vegetarianism are all on the rise, and more and more young people are actively participating to stop, or at least slowdown, the decay of the world as we know it. Though not on the national level, some cities have already implemented policies to either ban or limit the use of plastic.

Disposable masks, gloves, test kits, personal protective equipment are necessary for healthcare workers and facilities to save lives. With the coronavirus pandemic, the demand for said equipment continues to rise — and rightfully so. Undeniably, they should have enough of it, even if they’re made of plastic.

What concerned individuals around the world are asking for is a government response that does not generate a global environmental crisis to provide healthcare solutions. That means, along with providing adequate healthcare supplies, there must be proper waste management and proactive approaches that will not aggravate the already miserable condition of the planet.

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