MINORS Rutendo and Tapiwa rummage through piles of rotten garbage at a dumpsite in Masvingo city, sifting for used plastic bottles for recycling.
BY TATENDA CHITAGU
They are in the company of their mother, Hilda Murove, who survives on recycling empty plastic bottles and plastics bags for resale.
She has been in this trade for close to five years, but this year is a different one.
“We are seeing more of used masks and gloves than plastic bottles and plastic bags for recycling,” she said.
The government has made wearing of masks in public spaces compulsory. Non-recyclable masks have become the new litter in cities both in domestic and institutional bins.
But it is their disposal that has brought an environmental challenge in Masvingo and probably elsewhere.
“The only disposal method for non-recyclable masks is to turn to incineration. But we do not have an incinerator at our dumpsite, therefore, burning them will be the option but it has environmental issues as well,” Masvingo acting town clerk Edward Mukaratirwa said.
He said there was no policy for waste separation and residents needed to be conscientised so that they put solid waste in different bins from recyclable and non-recyclable waste.
“They are just putting used masks and gloves in the same bins with the rest of the litter, whether recyclable or not. Lack of waste separation at source complicates the whole issue. The unfortunate thing is that residents are lacking education on the disposal of these masks,” Mukaratirwa said.
Government’s environmental watchdog, the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) admitted the new challenge brought about by used masks and gloves.
“This challenge is an emerging one, not only in Masvingo, but the rest of the country and the world at large. This type of waste has serious and far-reaching negative impacts on the environment and human health if not properly disposed of,” EMA Masvingo provincial head, Milton Muusha said.
“Masks are increasingly becoming common street trash as Zimbabweans use them as a safety precaution against COVID-19. To make matters worse, personal protective equipment PPE litter is more hazardous than normal garbage, and it’s once-off use nature makes its proper disposal critical during a pandemic and beyond until the world fully recovers.”
Muusha revealed that EMA had since come up with guidelines to manage PPE litter.
“The guidelines give a detailed procedure expected for the safe disposal of this waste, from various generation points like medical facilities, workplaces, isolation, quarantine, and treatment centres, ports of entry, households and any other possible generation centres,” he said.
“One critical aspects articulated by these guidelines is the need for any generation point to have separation bins and liners for specifically collecting this type of waste.
“On collection, the authorities will then take this kind of waste to an incinerator, this avoiding its accumulation at the disposal site for general waste. The guidelines also emphasise on the raising of awareness among the various sectors and our populace on the proper disposal of such waste.”
But this, environmentalists warned, needed to be speedily implemented before much harm is done to the environment, as well as the residents near the dumpsite in Runyararo West suburb, who have to endure air pollution as well as flies everywhere.
“I regret ever buying a house in this area. We are used to the nuisance of many flies and smoke when the garbage is burnt. Now with the menace of the masks and gloves, there is a more grave health risk as kids sometimes forage at the dumpsite for garbage,” Agnes Maregere, a resident in Victoria Ranch high density suburb, said.
“The authorities must do something about the safe disposal of used masks and gloves, otherwise we will not win this COVID-19 fight.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a significant increase in the use of PPE, especially masks and gloves countrywide particularly by frontline staff, workers in various sectors as well as the general public.
The obtaining scenario has resulted in the transformation of the formerly institutionalised clinical or medical waste being found at workplace and household level globally with Zimbabwe being no exception.