In addition, used protective equipment of ordinary citizens is also stored in landfills instead of recycling. And this is fraught with possible infection of the landfill employees and the homeless, who will spread the infection further.
Where does medical waste from hospitals go?
The protective equipment used in hospitals, as well as tools, including syringes and test tubes, are all classified as so-called category B waste - epidemic hazardous medical waste.
In accordance with the 325th order of the Ministry of Health, medical institutions, whether public or private clinics, are responsible for the management of waste classes B, C, D. They are required to draw up contracts with operators for disposal through Prozorro system. Further, the waste must be burned in a furnace at a temperature of 800-1000 degrees. The smoke is cleared before being ejected. Such a procedure is necessary not only because of the risk of environmental pollution, but because of the danger of the spread of the epidemic.
However, this is not always the case. According to the head of the State Environmental Inspection of Ukraine, Andriy Malevaniy, about 100 thousand tons of hazardous waste, including waste from Covid-19 treatment have already accumulated in Ukraine. At the same time, no more than half of the medical waste goes to safe disposal.
The head of the board of the Association of Enterprises in the Field of Hazardous Waste Management, Kirill Kosourov, says: throwing medical waste into a regular tank, which holds about 400 kg of waste, and then dispose of it as household waste, costs up to 7 USD. A kilogram of a "medic" costs to 9 USD, depending on what kind of medical waste it is (masks, test tubes with blood, materials after surgical interventions). Therefore, hospitals often try to save money and treat medical waste as household waste. So it ends up in general landfills.
"You still try to find a hospital that would be 100% funded. They do not have enough money even for medicines and food for patients, and, accordingly, the issue of waste goes into the background. They do not always have the money to pay for disposal, and hospitals throw this waste into ordinary household ones, "says Kosourov to 112ua.tv.
According to the WHO, the virus lives on the surface of objects for 10 days. Usually, the garbage is not immediately taken out, so theoretically, the coronavirus will not be stored in the waste in the landfill for long. The risks of coronavirus getting into the fluids of the landfill, then into the soil and then, for example, into drinking water are minimal, given the number of layers of waste. But experts are concerned about something else: it is possible that the landfill staff and the homeless could become infected, and they will spread the infection further.
"As a result, we have a double problem. Firstly, there is a risk of the spread of coronavirus through unused waste. Secondly, landfills are multiplying, clogging up the soil and polluting groundwater," says Konstantin Yalovyi, ex-head of the environmental commission of the Kyiv City Council.
However, there is often no responsibility for clinic managers for such violations.
"If it is determined that they are violating, liability is stipulated by law. But no one is concerned about this issue. It is the journalists who look into the tanks at hospitals from time to time. And the authorities are well aware of the situation," Kosourov adds.
Often unscrupulous companies with which contracts are concluded are responsible for illegal disposal.
Coronavirus in the forest
“Companies are not able to recycle the contracted amount of waste and dispose of it by such methods,” comments the ex-head of the State Environmental Inspection of the Capital District Serhiy Volkov.
Not so long ago, the ex-head of the State Environmental Inspection Yegor Firsov announced that the country was trading in licenses for recycling. According to him, there is not a single recycling company in Ukraine that would properly dispose of waste. However, representatives of the sphere consider this an exaggeration.
Licenses are issued and canceled by the Ministry of the Environment. But the bureaucracy affected the frequency of violations by utilizers. After Zelensky became president, the Ministry of Environmental Protection was first united for a long time, and then disconnected from the Ministry of Energy. The State Environmental Inspectorate, which conducts inspections, during quarantine in 2020 was prohibited from scheduled audits, so they were carried out at the request of citizens.
Now the State Environmental Inspection is conducting large-scale inspections of utilizers.
"I turned to the Prime Minister with a request to give an order to check the enterprises. As soon as we received the order, we immediately began control measures. Now we are checking 61 enterprises, we are finding out whether they have the capacity for recycling at all and whether they really perform their functions," Malevaniy emphasizes.
SEI has already checked 18 companies. The revocation of licenses of three companies is sought through the ministry, and two more through the courts. In relation to the company in the Kyiv region, a criminal proceeding was opened under the article "Ecocide". But the fines stipulated by the legislation are incommensurate with the harm done to the environment.
According to the new method from the SEI, the amount of compensation for environmental damage has increased from 2 to 6 times depending on the degree of pollution, but this is not enough in the scale of earnings of winning companies.
The head of the State Environmental Inspection is confident that an effective system for monitoring the path of this waste - from collection to transportation and final destruction - could prevent the spread of illegal dumps with medical waste.
"There should be an information system where it will be indicated who generated the waste, by whom it was transported, where it was sorted, and its last point of disposal is recorded. Now this is all on paper. The relevant data has not been digitized and, unfortunately, there is no objective information," Volkov agrees.
According to our calculations, taking into account the total number of beds allocated for the fight against coronavirus, at least 40 tons of waste with coronavirus is produced in Ukraine per year. But not every city has recycling facilities. Waste has to be transported to other cities, and representatives of clinics often do not deal with this. However, this problem is also relevant for the garbage produced by the citizens themselves.
What Happens to "civilian" waste
The scale of the problem with the medical waste of the population is even more significant. Masks, respirators, gloves, which are used by citizens in connection with the requirements of the authorities, end up in landfills as ordinary household waste. Moreover, this is completely legal and correlates with official explanations from the Center for Public Health and the Ministry of Environmental Protection.
The ministry, in particular, proposes to pre-wrap protective equipment in polyethylene. For patients it is necessary to use two packages, for the rest of the citizens one is enough. How to understand if there is a coronavirus on the mask is unknown.
If we proceed from the recommendations on the Kyiv Administration website, it is generally assumed that for all the masks you have accumulated, it is enough to use only one package. The administration assures that the bags with masks are taken during sorting for further incineration. However, one can only guess about the conscientiousness of such sorting and disposal.
Thus, there is no common clear understanding among citizens about what to do with such waste. Environmentalists, on the other hand, express their indignation at the recommendation to use polyethylene, especially in several layers.
It turns out that at first it takes centuries for the package to decompose (and this is in the course of a complete ban on the use of plastic bags in our country), and only after that the turn of the mask will come. If gauze and cloth masks do not pose a serious threat to the environment, then standard protective equipment, due to their composition, disintegrates much longer.
Household waste with medical waste also often ends up in forests and fields. Illegal dumps with household rubbish and the remains of masks have recently been found in the Zhytomyr and Sumy regions. In Sumy oblast, waste was generally kept on the territory of a granary.
In theory, citizens worried about the spread of the epidemic could give masks to hospitals, as was the case, for example, in Russia. But, as we have already mentioned, hospitals cannot cope with such a flow, because every kilogram of garbage they generate costs a pretty penny to medical institutions.
Despite the risks of the spread of coronavirus and environmental pollution, in most cities, not to mention villages, you will not find collection points for masks for further disposal. Some local authorities (for example, the authorities of Odessa) offered citizens an alternative in the form of special ballot boxes. But in the same capital, there is no centralized collection. The project for the disposal of masks in Kyiv won in the Participation Budget, which was never implemented.
In the capital, masks and gloves can be returned to special recycled containers located at some supermarkets. But this is a private initiative.
“In the spring of last year, I offered large retail chains to install containers for collecting masks and gloves. And we implemented this project together with Billa and Metro chains at 14 locations. As a result, we managed to dispose of more than 6 tons of hazardous waste. Unfortunately, the authorities did not take the initiative. Now such containers are rare, and their installation is not systematic. Thus, there is no infrastructure for the disposal of medical waste in Kyiv. There is a huge threat of littering the city with them, which will have negative consequences for the environment as a whole,"- comments Kyiv City Council member, the former head of the permanent commission on environmental policy.
Since there is no centralized approach, the fate of the masks and gloves that are collected from citizens for disposal is also unknown.
What can I do?
The situation with the collection of medical waste could be improved by the framework law "On Waste Management", which provides for extended producer responsibility for waste. Pharmacy distributors and manufacturers of medical products and drugs would have to unite in a recycling organization. However, so far the bill has stalled in the Rada: 1,600 amendments have been submitted for the second reading. Environmentalists unanimously say that lobbyists do not allow the situation to change.
But most importantly, Ukrainians should stop using disposable medical masks. The expert advises Ukrainians to purchase 3-4 respirators with the FFP2-FFP3 marking, that is, with a high level of protection. After using the respirator for 3-4 hours, it must be treated with a disinfectant. This way you do not create additional pollution, and you protect yourself. Plus - save money on disposable masks. After all, while the respirator is worn out, you can safely use it for 3-4 months.
The ecologist is confident that the authorities could allocate funds to provide citizens with respirators from "covid" money. Or at least provide affordable prices for them.
Experts unanimously argue that the situation with medical waste has become a litmus test for waste disposal in Ukraine as a whole.
"Almost 22% of the population is not covered at all by services for the removal of household waste. And the total area of landfills in Ukraine is now compared with the territory of Denmark," Kosourov emphasizes. "If the trend continues, we will observe a geometric progression. It is all the fault of serious systemic mistakes of the authorities."
How long the quarantine will last and what harm will be done to the environment during the fight against coronavirus is unknown. One way or another, judging by the authorities' inaction on the disposal issue, the Ukrainians should start with themselves. And this means not only throwing away masks according to the rules, but also creating less household waste - using bags in supermarkets, not taking napkins and buying less coffee in disposable cups.