Handling Sanitary Waste in a COVID-19 Lock-down

With our cities locked-down under the COVID-19 pandemic, it is to be expected that our garbage clearance and housekeeping services will come under pressure. To add to this, municipal manpower and services will also be significantly reduced. Consequently, it is possible that your door to door collection service will become uncertain or unreliable, or in the worst case, it will break down completely. There could be no garbage clearance for days.

Under these circumstances, we can find simple ways to handle 90-95% of our waste, if we improvise and plan in advance. Instead of looking for a single bin to dump all our trash, we should sort our trash first, and keep it clean, dry and odour free. We’ll need to store most of the recyclable materials. Wet waste can be home composted with ease. Electronic waste can be kept separate and stored for however long it takes.

However, one type of waste will be challenging; Sanitary Waste. In this article we will try to cover different ways in which sanitary waste can be disposed. We will limit ourselves to regular households only. Households which are under home quarantine will need to take special care to keep their trash sorted and delivered only to approved professional agencies according to bio-medical waste management standards.

What is Sanitary Waste?

Sanitary waste primarily consists of bathroom waste. This includes:

  • baby diapers, adult diapers
  • sanitary pads
  • condoms
  • soiled tissue paper from bathrooms
  • any other material that comes into bodily contact or is contaminated with bodily fluids, such as blood, urine or faeces.
  • Pet and animal litter.
  • Additionally, at household level, bandages, waxing strips, syringes, shaving blades and sharps, dead insects and pests which could also lead to the spread of infectious diseases is considered sanitary waste

Why is Sanitary Waste Disposal Challenging?

Sanitary waste disposal is challenging for following reasons:

  • It cannot be stored for long. it decomposes very quickly, spreads bad odors and is disgusting to be around.
  • Sanitary waste is bio-hazardous, since it harbors pathogens which spread infectious diseases.
  • It is difficult to handle. Waste generators do not know enough or care enough to keep it segregated and protected. It’s collection and transport requires extensive hygiene and safety measures. Waste workers are most vulnerable to hazardous conditions created.
  • At household level quantities are very small. Hence, the separate collection, handling, aggregation and disposal of waste becomes expensive.
  • It is difficult to process. In most cases processing facilities are expensive to build and do not have enough processing capacity. Subsequently, in most cases, this contaminated waste is dumped in untreated landfills or dumps.  

What are the Solutions?

1. Avoid Waste, Choose Alternatives

The best and most efficient way to approach sanitary waste is to go zero waste or look at generating minimum. Baby Diapers and Sanitary pads form the largest share of sanitary waste. If eco-friendly alternatives can be chosen, there will be little or no waste.

  1. Baby Diapers: Did you know that a baby exclusively wearing disposable diapers generates more than 900 kg of garbage in the first two years? Disposable diapers are made of plastic and also contain harmful chemicals. Using them exclusively is as irresponsible as open defecation. In fact, it is much worse, since it also brings with it a large carbon footprint and toxic chain. There are several alternatives that can be purchased, such as cloth diapers. You could consider the traditional Indian cotton Langot as well.

Here are some options to consider:

  • Bumpadum
  • Superbottoms
  • Tushions
  • Bouncing Peaches
  • Make your own cloth diapers
  • A lot of baby stores such as First Cry have sustainable cloth and reusable diaper options
  • You can also find these options on Flipkart, Amazon

For more ideas and knowledge please read this article from a mother who turned into an enterpreneur.

Watch what Mayim Biyalik, the award winning star from The Big Bang Theory has to say about bringing up babies without diapers in this video.

Join Facebook Groups Cloth Diapering India, Cloth Diapers for Beginners

  1. Adult Diapers: Adult diapers are advised to people who have medical issues such as urinary or faecal incontinence, bed-ridden patients, patients with mental disabilities, etc. There are several options to find sustainable solutions here similar to baby diapers, such as the use of underpads and re-usable diapers.

While the options for these products in the market are very few at the moment, the volume of adult diapers in waste is also very low. Zero waste solutions here will be largely on similar lines as baby diapers.

  1. Sanitary Pads: Sanitary pads along with baby diapers form the largest volume of sanitary waste and hence it is critical to reduce the use of disposable options.

Statistics show, that a woman uses between 10,000 – 15,000 sanitary pads in her lifetime. Apart from creating a huge disposal problem, disposable pads contain chemicals such chlorine, phthalates and plastic which can lead to reproductive disorders, developmental defects and even cancer.

The zero waste alternatives in this case involve shifting to menstrual cloth, re-usable pads and menstrual cups. Disposable pads and tampons should be avoided.

Source: UNICEF Guidance on Menstrual Health and Hygiene 2019 Page 59

Here are some options for sanitary materials:

For more expert guidance on sustainable menstruation, please visit Green the Red2bin1bag and join Facebook Groups: Menstrual Cups Cloth Pads (MCCP)

2. Sort, Pack & Dispose

In the present lock-down situation, most of us did not have ready alternatives at hand. Hence, the best way to handle the situation is to make sure that sanitary waste is packed or tied securely in newspaper, marked with a “red dot” and kept separate. Please watch this video to understand more about the “red dot” campaign.

During the lock-down, consider home composting and storing dry waste at home to reduce the load on the overall trash collection system. As such, only sanitary waste should go out and nothing else. With no disposal facility available look for a community solution temporarily to tide over the crisis. More details are provided in the following section.

3. Look for Community Collection & Disposal

When there is no door to door collection, storing sanitary waste at home is not possible. Until proper disposal can be restored, community level collection and storage is the solution. To achieve this, each waste generator should take the responsibility to deliver waste into a community bin or into a deep pit or sanitary waste composting pit specially made for this purpose.

The community bin can be a 200+ l plastic chemical storage drum with a cover. It can be located far away from any living or habitable space. Consider using terraces of buildings for temporary collection. Based on volume, multiple containers may be necessary.

To prevent odors and stench, dry leaves, shredded garden waste, saw dust or cocopeat can be used to cover the waste. Alongside, an organic odor reduction spray such as EM solution can be sprayed.

All the contents of the bin can be disposed once the municipal system is restored.

As a temporary solution, deep burial or compost pits can be made to treat sanitary waste. This should be considered, provided the quantities of waste is below 50 kg per day. The pits should be created at least 7-10 m away from the nearest water source. More details here. We do not recommend burning or incineration at community level.

Fortunately, the quantities of sanitary waste compared to overall trash is very small. As a result, it can be handled well at the community level.

4. Create Awareness

Knowledge sharing and awareness generation on sustainable alternatives and methods for sanitary waste management form a very important link in achieving a behavior shift in reducing this problem.

Create awareness as follows:

  • Inviting experts to give talks in the community
  • Keeping in touch with organizations working in this field such as Stone Soup
  • Joining support groups on Social Media

Contact us if you want to organise an awareness program remotely.

To summarize, our objective as a community should be to minimize sanitary waste generation and handle what is unavoidable in a safe and sustainable way right from generation to final disposal.

With the handling of sanitary waste efficiently, we prevent the contamination of compost-able and recyclable wastes. This is a huge contribution to sustainable waste management, which can transform hygiene, health and cleanliness in our community in a holistic manner. Consider shifting your lifestyle now!