Under-counting and under-representation of data dogs management of COVID-19 biomedical waste, says CSE assessment

Caseload goes up by over 200 per cent, but COVID-19 waste generation goes up by a mere 11 per cent in the same period—assessment finds data mismatch owing to gross under-counting 

India’s existing biomedical waste management infrastructure completely unprepared to meet a surge in infections; wrong data makes matters worse 

Vaccination drives themselves generating a massive load of used vials and syringes—how are we planning to take care of them, asks the assessment 

Mismanagement of COVID-19 waste can help the virus sneak in through a backdoor to ravage us 

New Delhi, July 2, 2021: India is sitting on a potential powder keg of serious infection—while the lengthening COVID-19 pandemic has spiked up the country’s generation of biomedical wastes, the infrastructure for managing this extremely hazardous waste is on the verge of collapse, finds a new assessment from Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). 

The statistics tell the tale: almost 20 per cent of the biomedical waste India generates on any given day since the pandemic’s first wave is COVID-19-related, says data collected by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) using the COVID19BWM app, designed to keep track of the waste generated due to the pandemic. 

Doubtful data

But even this hefty percentage might be an under-representation, cautions the assessment. Says Atin Biswas, programme director, Solid Waste Management unit, CSE: “While the COVID-19 caseload increased by a massive 234 per cent between the first and second waves of the pandemic, COVID-19 biomedical waste generation went up by only 11 per cent. The CPCB attributes this mismatch to better segregation of the waste, but our research points clearly to under-representation.” 

Says Siddharth Ghanshyam Singh, deputy programme manager of CSE’s Solid Waste Management unit: “The challenge is to monitor the flow of COVID-19 waste. This waste has innumerable sources ranging from individual households to isolation centres and makeshift quarantine camps. Even though the Supreme Court made reporting through COVID19BWM app mandatory in July 2020, till December 2020, only 184 of the country’s 198 biomedical waste treatment facilities were updating their waste handling data on the app. By May, the number had dropped to 168.” 

The report finds waste generators fare even worse on this account. In November 2020, 100,000 generators shared their information on the app. But in May 2021, when India accounted for almost half of the world’s new cases, only 5,084 generators had shared their data on the app. 

“Such gross under-counting and under-reporting on COVID-19 is a matter of concern, especially because of the changing geography of the infection from urban to rural areas, where mechanisms to track patients in real time are almost non-existent,” says Biswas. 

Inadequate infrastructure

India has a biomedical waste treatment capacity of 826 tonnes per day, as per the CPCB. The assessment says this capacity is highly inadequate to handle a surge in COVID-19 cases, as was witnessed in September 2020 or May 2021. 

During the pandemic’s second wave, 22 of India’s 35 states and Union territories generated more biomedical waste than they could handle. In May 2021, when India recorded the maximum number of new cases, COVID-19 accounted for 33 per cent of the biomedical waste generated across the country. This seems to have particularly overwhelmed an already-strained biomedical waste treatment infrastructure, notes the assessment. 

The volumes were particularly massive in Haryana (where COVID-19 waste made up 47 per cent of total biomedical waste), Chhattisgarh (42 per cent), Himachal Pradesh (40 per cent), Andhra Pradesh (40 per cent) and Delhi (39 per cent). 

Vaccination blues

The massive vaccination drive that has been undertaken in India will add to the biomedical waste burden. “Every vaccine generates one waste syringe and needle and every 10-20 vaccinations generate one waste glass vial. They are biomedical waste that need to be disposed of carefully,” says Singh. 

By the conclusion of the vaccination drive, which the Centre hopes to reach by the end of this year, the country would have generated over 1.3 billion used syringes and needles and more than 100 million discarded glass vials. “Do we have the capacity to deal with this huge mountain of COVID waste which is going to descend on us very soon?” asks Singh. 

Cleaning up our act

The assessment offers a few recommendations to remedy the situation: intensifying awareness among citizens to enforce segregation at source, ensuring registration of all waste generators and processors on the COVID-19 BMW app, limiting the use of PPE kits and other single-use paraphernalia to frontline workers only, and paying more attention to the rural hinterland where the virus has begun its depredation, among other things. 

Says Biswas:“While we are focused on prevention through measures like social distancing, use of masks, hand-washing and vaccination, we must not leave the backdoor ajar for the virus to spread through waste.” 

For the complete Down To Earth story based on the assessment:


To watch the proceedings of the recent CSE webinar on the subject: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVI_I2SSfFo 

For any other information and interviews, please contact: Sukanya Nair of The CSE Media ResourceCentre, sukanya.nair@cseindia.org, 8816818864