An Indo-Norwegian study of the COVID-19 pandemic’s implications on the informal sector and biomedical and plastic waste generation and handling, conducted in parts of Delhi and Surat between March and July 2020 has reported disruption to the waste value chain, severe income losses and disproportionate exposure to health risks in the form of discarded PPEs for informal workers.
The study illuminates that while both study sites hold excess capacity to treat biomedical waste, the direct and indirect impacts (e.g. depression of global oil prices/price of recycled plastic) of COVID-19 have severely disrupted formal and informal plastic waste value chains / with impacts in Surat being somewhat less pronounced compared to Delhi. Nevertheless, severe loss of income and livelihood precariousness are observed in both places, with an easing of certain income losses over subsequent unlock phases. Health risks from exposure to inadequately contaminated biomedical waste of frontline informal workers was another key concern.
Study found that about 52% plastic waste recyclers in Surat and 87% in Delhi said that their business was severely affected during and after lockdown, due to decreased selling price of the plastic pellets and 25-30% decline in income of waste collectors was observed after the lockdown (in April-May 2020) of waste collectors in Surat and Delhi.
The study was supported by the Royal Norwegian Embassy in New Delhi and jointly conducted by an Indo-Norwegian project team (INOPOL) from Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA), Mu Gamma Consultants Pvt Ltd (MGC) and Toxics Link. The findings of the report was released during a webinar on “The Informal Sector, plastic and biomedical waste-perspectives and trends during COVID19” organised by the Indo-Norwegian project team and attended by invited experts who discussed the impact of the COVID-19 situation on key aspects of the waste management ecosystem. The experts highlighted that the vulnerability of the informal workers to livelihood and health risks needs to be reduced and called for more recognition and support to strengthen the role of the informal sector in efficient waste management. Study co-author Dr. Hans Nicolai Adam highlighted ‘that more interdisciplinary work of this nature needs to be conducted, and linked to policy processes to find broad based, equitable and environmentally friendly solutions that involve the neglected informal sector, and combat plastic pollution in a joint manner. The study also highlights the value of fruitful international collaboration to find more local solutions to global issues’.
Dr. Muralee Thummarukudy, Chief, Disaster Risk Reduction, United Nations Environment Program while speaking at the webinar said, “The biomedical waste produced per COVID patient on an average is about 3kgs per day. The burden of waste management mostly falls on the informal sector and the waste pickers are mostly from the marginalised communities of the society. The COVID19 pandemic which is both a health as well as economic crisis has hit the waste pickers particularly hard. The findings of the study released today are in line with the global findings and recommendations.”
The webinar was opened and chaired by Eirik Hovland Steindal, Research Scientist, NIVA.
Dr. Thorjorn Larssen, Research Director, NIVA, said, “Informal waste management workers are particularly hard hit by the COVID19 pandemic. This study is an effort to reach out to waste management workers to get a better understanding of their situation, how are they coping with the COVID19 pandemic crisis and to recommend steps to strengthen the informal sector involved in waste management.”
Dr. Girija Bharat, Founder-Director, Mu Gamma Consultants said, “Our study is an effort to understand how COVID-19 outbreak has impacted the management of plastic and biomedical waste management and propose tentative measures that can strengthen the informal sector involved in waste management. The COVID19 pandemic has a more pronounced impact on the informal waste management workers with loss of livelihood, reverse migration and lack of social security. There is a need for better coordination between municipalities and health systems, increased focus on education and awareness and separate policy and detailed guidelines.”
Mr. Satish Sinha, Associate Director, Toxics Link said, “It is extremely critical to be vigilant in managing COVID waste and prepare adequately for handling waste generated from mass vaccination”
Ms. Youthika Puri from the CPCB said “Challenges of the crisis includes improper segregation and the fact that there is no discrimination between plastics- biomedical- and solid waste. This has resulted in overfilled landfills and waste floating in coastal waters. Municipal bodies are key in this scenario as they coordinate between the waste sector, the health sector and the government.”
Mr. Siddharth Hande, a social entrepreneur and Founder of Kabadiwalla Connect, said “During lockdown, smaller informal scrap shops in Chennai were supporting waste pickers, giving them enough money for food, showing that the informal ecosystem is supporting itself at scale. Such strong and robust informal supply chains are also found in cities in for example Indonesia and Vietnam. There is a need to come together to build consensus of the entire network to find solutions that will catalyse the opportunities of these networks at scale”