Featured image: A man in personal protective equipment (PPE) clears bags filled with medical waste at a hospital, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai, India, August 11, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas
As Mumbai copes with COVID-19, a related outcome of the pandemic is the mounting waste. Mumbai city generated three times the daily average COVID-19 waste in July as compared to April and 42 times compared to that of 12 days of the pandemic in March. By July, the city was generating almost the same amount of COVID-19 waste as regular biomedical waste in pre-pandemic times.
Even before the pandemic, Mumbai’s solid waste was in a state of emergency with the Bombay high court having constituted a committee after BMC failed to shut down Deonar garbage dumping ground for years. For the city’s biomedical waste (BMW) needs, a common biomedical waste treatment facility (CBMWTF) is located at Deonar in Central Mumbai. The plant’s incinerator has a capacity of 24,000 kg per day that was underutilised so far. Before the outbreak of the pandemic, Mumbai generated 10,000 kg-17,000 kg of biomedical waste every day that was sent here. Even as the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) considers expanding the existing waste treatment facility at Deonar, local residents continue to oppose the existing one that leaves them gasping.
COVID-19 waste includes masks, gloves, Personal Protective Equipments (PPE) used by COVID-19 patients apart from syringes, blood-soaked tissues, swabs, medicines. As of August 31, over five months after the initial cases were detected, the total number of people detected positive for COVID-19 in Mumbai was 145,000, including 7,655 dead and 110,000 recovered and discharged, as reported by the BMC.
According to data from the BMC’s Solid Waste Management department, from March 19 onwards, the city started generating COVID-19 waste and between March 19 and March 31, Mumbai generated 6414 kg COVID-19 waste, an average of 286 kg per day. In April, Mumbai’s COVID-19 waste increased 15 times that of the 12 days in March to 99,123 kg, an average of 3304 kg per day.
Besides, COVID-19 waste generated from containment zones, quarantine or isolation centres was also collected separately, pushing the total to 3750 kgs. In May, the daily average COVID-19 waste doubled. June marked a further rise and by July, Mumbai generated a total of 12,065 kg COVID-19 waste on an average every day (data available upto July 25). This is almost at par with regular biomedical waste generated in Mumbai in pre-COVID times.
Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) had given guidelines in April wherein COVID waste is collected in yellow bags while other municipal waste from containment zones is collected in black bags. Yellow bags are burned at SMS Envoclean’s incinerators in Deonar, black bags are disinfected and given a deep burial at the neighbouring dumping ground. SMS Envoclean has a 20 year-contract to dispose of all of Mumbai’s biomedical waste but its capacity is about to exhaust.
An indication of this is that recently, hospitals raised a stink over the piles of COVID waste bags lying on their premises since the company had failed to dispose them of for days. Eventually, BMC had to help the contractor to dispose of the waste.
Concerns of COVID-19 waste being handled haphazardly
Mumbai residents have also complained of COVID waste being disposed of in a haphazard manner. In May, residents of Tata Colony in Mulund in Central Mumbai, raised concerns about PPE being dumped in the crematorium nearby. Residents of a housing society in the Wadala area of Mumbai complained twice about PPEs being burned outside their society after burials.
In neighbouring Kalyan, a public interest litigation was filed by activist Kishor Sohoni in Bombay high court seeking directions to stop dumping untreated COVID-19 waste in Adharwadi dumping ground (Dombivali) immediately.
Amit Nilawar, ex-Director and currently a shareholder of SMS Envoclean said, “Our capacity is to incinerate 10 to 12 tonnes biomedical waste and six to seven tonne COVID waste every day. Even as COVID waste increased, we managed because regular BMW had reduced. Now load has increased and we are sending excess waste to another private facility in Taloja at high rates but for how long can we do that?” he said. The company reported that its waste doubled in terms of weight but became five times in terms of volume during the pandemic. It is paid Rs 100 per kg by private hospitals and has now demanded the same rate from public hospitals to make up for losses. BMC is yet to consider their demands.
Fumes from dumping ground impact residents
In fact, the 24 tonne per day incinerator at Deonar, which currently treats all of Mumbai’s biomedical waste, was never supposed to fulfill all of Mumbai’s BMW needs. BMC was supposed to hand over three plots to the contractor, SMS Envoclean, for three plants in total but the civic body could not find land parcels for the job. The sole plant has faced opposition from local residents and opposition has intensified again due to COVID waste.
Shaikh Faiyaz Alam, a resident of Govandi, a neighbourhood adjacent to the dumping ground and member of NGO New Sangam Welfare Society said, “Smoke from the plant’s chimney comes right into our houses which is why there has been high prevalence of respiratory diseases in Govandi for years now. Since COVID-19 outbreak, smoke has increased 10 times what was emanated earlier.”
The Deonar dumping ground in Mumbai’s eastern suburb is the oldest and largest landfill in the city and has been repeatedly linked to health issues in residents living in the primarily low-income neighbourhoods surrounding it.
Smoke emanating from SMS Envoclean’s chimney at Deonar, Mumbai. Video by Shaikh Faiyaz Alam.
Rukhsana Siddiqui, Samajwadi Party municipal councilor from Govandi, has been opposing the CBMWTF for years now and has held several public protests including a Jail Bharo Andolan.
“People are dying here of respiratory issues. In fact, COVID-19 spread so much in this area because these people’s immunity has reduced owing to years of exposure to smoke. The number of people affected due to this plant is in thousands. After the government set up plant here, they should have prohibited settlement here. Now, there are people living a few meters away.” M-East ward that includes Govandi and Deonar has reported 4869 COVID-19 cases as of August 29 including 316 deaths.
Amita Bhide, Dean of School of Habitat Studies of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, also located at Deonar, said, “How does one burden one ward with so many elements of waste? An animal waste incinerator is going to come up in the same area as well. Don’t you consider the impact on local population at all?”
MPCB issued notice in 2019
After protests against the CBMWTF at Deonar in July 2019, by local residents who wanted it shifted, the MPCB issued a closure notice to SMS Envoclean. It directed BMC to make other arrangements for disposal of BMW in a scientific manner, according to a July 2019 letter by MPCB to Siddiqui. However, SMS Envoclean filed a writ petition against the notice and secured a stay order from Bombay HC. The matter is pending.
Even as the matter is sub-judice, BMC has initiated the process to hand over another land parcel next to the existing one to the same company for another plant with a capacity of 15 tonnes.
“We have now directed them to construct another facility of 15 tonnes per day for future needs. Now it is their job to secure necessary clearances,” said a senior officer from Mumbai’s solid waste management (SWM) department who did not wish to be named.
On MPCB’s closure notice, additional municipal commissioner Suresh Kakani said, “A final decision has not been taken on the expansion. We will take due notice of the pending legal matter.”
However, even if the land is handed over, the project will require an environmental clearance and coastal regulation zone clearance. The entire process of securing clearances and construction will take around two years.
COVID-19 waste and conservancy workers
Meanwhile, conservancy workers in Mumbai have repeatedly raised concerns over poor working conditions since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Milind Ranade of Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh, an organisation for labourers, especially in solid waste management, said, “Municipal officers wear N95 masks while conservancy workers are given cloth masks. We had to tie up with a private company to distribute something as basic as soap to labourers.”
More than 100 municipal employees have lost their life to COVID-19 from March to August 19, of which 35 were from SWM department. Four contractual conservancy staffers have also died of COVID-19 as of August 19.