Waste workers are important to society as a whole as well as to the country’s economy. How can these essential service providers be protected during the pandemic?

How waste is disposed of could stop or promote the spread of Covid-19. The virus dies when it is outside the human body, but it can remain viable on surfaces and objects for days, which, when touched, could transfer the infection. 

To combat the pandemic, it is essential that every way in which the virus is spread from one human to the next is cut off. One route of transmission that has often been overlooked is through waste, however, whether on contaminated packaging such as plastics or hygiene-related items such as masks, tissues and gloves. 

“While Covid-19 is spread mainly through respiratory droplets and most often through person-to-person contact, evidence suggests that the virus sticks to household waste,” explains Tony Ribbink, CEO of the Sustainable Seas Trust. 

The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that the Covid-19 virus is more stable on plastic and stainless steel than on copper and cardboard, remaining viable on hard surfaces for up to 72 hours. The Journal of Hospital Infection suggests that the virus can survive on metal, glass and plastic for as long as nine days, and in some cases up to 28 days (in low temperatures). 

“Without proper care through sanitisation and keeping rubbish aside for a few days before collection, Covid-19 will remain stable on all surfaces,” Ribbink says. 

So, waste could potentially pose a massive risk to waste workers while they deliver their essential service. 

“Waste workers, both formal and informal, play a critical role in South Africa’s economy, contributing R24,3 billion to gross domestic product, and their contact with people’s disposables, especially in homes where there are Covid-19 infections, is endangering their lives and compromising the incredible potential of the waste economy to sustain livelihoods and improve the environment,” he says. 

“South Africa collected 519 370 t of plastic for recycling in 2018, which is the weight of about 87 000 African elephants. Seen in these terms, the potential for spreading Covid-19 is significant and it is only going to get worse. 

“The World Bank, in a snapshot of solid waste management to 2050, shows that the Sub-Saharan African region generates a significant amount of waste, and this is expected to increase at a higher rate than for any other region due to rapid urbanisation and population growth.” 

Ribbink notes that while personal protective equipment (PPE) is provided to waste workers, less attention is paid to the correct waste disposal procedures of domestic households. 

It is estimated, he says, that there are between 60 000 and 90 000 informal landfill and kerbside waste pickers in South Africa and that they supply 90% of packaging waste to recyclers. 

“Melanie Samson, a senior lecturer in Human Geography at Wits University, emphasises the important role that informal waste workers play,” he says. “Only 10,8% of urban households separate their waste (most people throw recyclables away), but the country has recycling rates comparable to European countries for some materials. Informal waste workers save municipalities R750-million a year in landfill costs and yet, they are not paid for the services provided.”  

Ribbink adds that their marginalisation became apparent when their work was not deemed essential during levels four and five of South Africa’s lockdown. “Moreover, like millions of other informal workers in the country, they are not eligible to access government financial support programmes. Informal waste workers in particular do not have the required gear to protect themselves from acquiring and transmitting the virus. It is up to us to play our part in protecting all waste workers, and in doing so, contribute to economic and social growth.” 

The United Nations Environment Programme has put together a list of recommendations for the general public to follow for safe disposal and management of waste at home and at work, to prevent and stop the spread of the Covid-19 virus:

• Do not throw gloves, masks, wipes, tissues or packaging into the environment.

• Separate your waste for recycling and non-recycling and delay the collection or drop-off of these items by five days. This may help reduce the spread.

• Clean and disinfect all surfaces and objects, including frequently touched surfaces such as counters, bank cards, cellphones, groceries and handles.

• Tissues, wipes, paper towels or other materials used when sneezing or coughing must immediately be thrown in a secure refuse bin, bag or packet; afterwards correct hand hygiene should be performed. Delay putting the waste out for collection by five days. 

• Frequently disinfect and wash reusable PPE. 

• Disposable gloves are not necessary and are not recommended unless you are providing healthcare, waste management and cleaning services. Where possible, rather wash your hands or sanitise instead of using disposable gloves.

• Frequently wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds after touching any packaging or waste materials. If washing is not possible, use hand sanitiser containing at least 60% alcohol. 

“We must accept that Covid-19 is here for a while and that other dangerous diseases may arrive on our shores in the coming decades,” Ribbink says. “With increased waste, especially plastic waste, we must play our part in preserving the health and saving the lives of our waste workers by changing simple waste management habits.”  

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