Rivers must not be ultimate destination of mask, gloves wastes

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The nature has been reborn, with all its glow and beauty amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. On one hand, humans are very upset while on the other, the nature is glowing. The world is now for birds and animals, insects, green trees and creepers.

At this moment, masks, gloves and personal protective equipment (PPE) are constant companions of helpless human beings to save themselves from the advent of the novel coronavirus. Hundreds of millions of masks, gloves and PPEs are being produced besides tonnes of hand sanitisers. But what is the ultimate destination of these waste?

Undoubtedly, this is another dimension of threat to the nature. Scientific research-based directives are necessary at this moment. Masks, gloves and PPEs are not fully biodegradable that could be reused through recycling. Bangladesh has a specific law for collection, preservation, transportation and dispose of clinical waste. Bangladesh Medical Waste Regulation (Management and Processing) 2008 has clear directives in this regard.

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There are waste management committees at district and division levels to identify, classify and ensure dispose of medical waste. There are experts, civil surgeons and representatives of the administration in those committees. But as an enforcement member of environment directorate I have seen how much callous and irresponsible we are in managing medical waste.

Once the river Buriganga was the ultimate destination of tonnes of polythene used in Dhaka. Later, a step was taken to remove the 7-8 feet silt of polythene waste from the bed of Buriganga at a cost of Tk 2.06 billion to save it from pollution. But the river has not got its old flow. We do not have the capacity to realise its economic value.

The coronavirus pandemic has taught us what a tragic consequence could be the result of sheer greed and mindless consumption. Man is today tired and miserable because of making the nature impoverished and destitute. What a tragic reality! The coronavirus proved that man is not the owner of the nature, rather a part of the whole.

In Bangladesh, we have got a vast greenery, rivers, hills and haors (a vast water body). Rivers are a great source of lives and livelihood around the globe. Rivers criss-cross Bangladesh like veins. But the pride we had once as citizens of a riverain country is just a memory of distant past. The number of rivers has decreased to 230 now from around 750 in 1960’s. Pollution and our encroachment created blockages in rivers like those of in veins. Many of the rivers finally died like a heart disease patient.

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The government’s recent move to recover the rivers made many people hopeful. The High Court in 2019 declared the rivers as living beings, which means, the legal rights of rivers have been acknowledged. But the waste of hundreds of millions of masks and gloves have created a new challenge. A recent research revealed that 1,592 tonnes waste of surgical masks have been produced in Bangladesh just in one month, from 26 March to 25 April.

COVID-19 has already threatened the global food security. The people are panicked over economic and mental pressure and an ever rising death toll. Amid all this, mask and glove waste have intensified the environmental crisis. How to dispose hundreds of millions of used masks? Will then, the riverbeds be the ultimate destination via dustbins and drains? Rivers are the safest dumping zones in this country!

We have to conduct researches on what could be the problems with mask, gloves waste and find out their data-driven solutions. Wastes cannot be hidden, pollution knows no geographical boundary. It surely will affect the nature. The reality in Bangladesh is, people will throw away the waste here and there and those would be lost into the rivers. If we take a look, we would find wastes of used masks strewn on roads, lanes, by-lanes, drains. It is unthinkable what would be the situation if the masks add to polyethene that already clogged the drains in Dhaka.

It would be unfortunate if masks, gloves and PPEs, which we have been using to save ourselves from the virus, become another source of river, water and environment pollution. In England, they burn the used masks separating them in a yellow-coloured dustbin. But the chemicals used in sanitisers is volatile, so its polluting effect on the nature would be negligible. Finally, in every production, recycling of wastes, reuse and their alternative use is a part of good governance.

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There are three principles in waste management: collecting, separating and dispose. Medical waste that contain infectious germs should be disposed at the hospital’s own dumping zones. Taking them outside is dangerous. Since the used masks and gloves are truly dangerous, there is no alternative of burning them as per the experts’ advices. In this case, the medical waste must be separated from other waste. Even, keeping those at a dustbin or dumping zone is also dangerous. It would be even more dangerous if the waste collectors get a hand on it. That is why those must be burnt at a place far from the people.

A strict supervision is necessary whether these are done rigorously. The environment directorate is not responsible for this alone. An accurate information of every day’s dispose and collection of waste has to be kept. The physicians and nurses have to be given training on waste management. The city corporations/ municipalities should select different spaces for wastes of mask, gloves and PPE. there should be incentives considering the health risks of the workers involved in waste management. Different organisations can use their CSR (corporate social responsibility) money in waste management. Only then, the CSR expenditure would be effective, both in literal and ethical grounds.

We would request the mask and gloves producing firms in Bangladesh to use sophisticated technology and make the consumers understand which one is eco-friendly and which one is dangerous for the environment. The world is manacled by profit-driven corporate-empires. Goal of production is to do business. The corporate offices are yet to be humane.

This is the age of science and technology. The practice of science and technology and saving nature is bound to the same thread. Man is the biggest enemy of environment. Oxygen level of our rivers go below zero per cent because of poisonous wastes of thousands of textile mills and dying companies.

In the lockdown, drives of the environment directorate was closed but the oxygen level in Buriganga river has increased to almost five milligrams due to decrease of industry wastes (at least six milligrams of oxygen per litre is required for living entities). Citizens have to be eco-friendly to make the environment act a success. As a nation, we easily ignore the environment. At the same time, we are yet to acquire eco-friendly etiquette in our personal and social lives. People do not want to abide by law until they are penalised.

Saving environment is an essential part of a healthy society. Generations after generations we could not be sensitive enough to the environment. If the pandemic of waste is added to the coronavirus pandemic, it would be dangerous for the environment. That is why environment acts and people’s tendency to abide by the laws have to brought at one point.

* Mohammad Munir Chowdhury is director general of National Science and Technology Museum. This article has been rewritten in English by Shameem Reza

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