The entire human community is facing its worst disaster in recent decades which is the Covid19 pandemic. The impact of this epidemic is not only on the health sector but on almost all the socio-economic aspects as well as the natural environment. Amidst the health-related issues, the pandemic has created an extra challenge in waste management, especially in developing countries like Sri Lanka.

Here the inadequate and inappropriate handling of healthcare waste may have a significant impact on the environment and serious public health consequences.

Healthcare waste management includes waste separation at source, handling at source, collection, transportation, recycling, and final disposal. Developing countries that may already lack proper healthcare and waste management practices due to technical, operational, and financial limitations particularly become more vulnerable during the pandemic, with its new risks and challenges, creating additional burdens for both local and national governments.

Global Challenges of Waste Management During Covid-19 Pandemic

Waste management is a great challenge worldwide, especially in major cities. Population growth, migration from rural to urban areas and higher consumption are all contributing to this challenge. United Nations estimate that the world generates around 7 to 10 billion tonnes of solid waste from urban households, commerce, industry and construction. But lower-income cities in Asia and Africa will double their waste generation within the next 15-20 years because of poor waste management.

World Bank reports say that food and green waste comprise more than 50% of waste in low and middle-income countries. Recyclables make up a substantial fraction of waste streams, ranging from 16% of paper, cardboard, plastic, metal and glass in low-income countries to about 50% in high-income countries.

There are some considerable issues while managing waste. One of the major issues in waste management is dump sites. Dump sites are a global problem. They receive roughly 40% of the world’s waste and they serve about 3.5-4 billion people. As urbanization and population growth will continue, it is expected that at least several millions of more people will be served by dump sites, mainly in the developing world.

Not only under-developed countries but also developed countries facing for many problems during waste management as follow;

  • Increasing waste generation due to sustainable and overconsumption of goods and services
  • Infrastructure and funding not meeting the current demands
  • Emerging challenges for recycling since China implemented its National Sword Policy on 01 January 2018, which restricted the importation of 24 categories of solid waste and limits contamination of those materials to less than 0.5%

All of the above, so far globally mentioned, are the conditions that existed in waste management prior to the Covid19 epidemic.

Covid19 pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities of current waste management systems and infrastructures to fluctuations in waste generation resulting in more waste disposed of in landfills, accumulation of hazardous wastes and improper waste disposal. Also waste generation amid Covid19, mostly discarded PPEs and single-use plastics, has been an environmental and public health crisis worldwide.

Covid19 situation presents an increased personal risk for informal waste collection workers, who face transmission exposure when picking up and sorting waste. Furthermore, Covid19 has exposed pre-existing problems such as inequalities and inadequacies in urban areas.

Municipal Solid Waste Management During Covid19 Pandemic

According to the World Bank reports, an estimated 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste were generated in the year 2016 and this number is expected to grow to 3.4 billion tonnes by 2050 under a business-as-usual scenario. There are mainly three stages in municipal solid waste management. 1st stage is public health improvement, 2nd stage is pollution and living environment protection and the third stage is the establishment of a sound material-cycle society by 3Rs. In Sri Lanka, after the year 2000, we are in the second stage of municipal solid waste management. This stage is having more concern on pollution aspects as well. The main considerations in this stage are; waste disposal where to dump, how to dispose of, and what are the consequences of disposal.

There is a big change in plastic recovery sources in the last decade. Separated plastic sources from municipal waste are recycling. Still, Sri Lanka is not in the best position in this regard but must appreciate all initiatives of the government, and private institutes to promote plastic resources, recovery and recycling and witness the change last 2010-2020 years.

In the era of public health improvement governments, public institutes, and foreign institutes implement their waste management activities in a fairly acceptable manner. Those strategies are more helpful in managing municipal solid waste even in an epidemic situation.

We must appreciate the positive initiative of the waste management authority of the Western province soon after the Covid19 pandemic, they were the first to introduce special guidelines for households, and local authorities under a legal framework for the activities were managing the waste, treating and disposal. Those guidelines explain all the concepts regarding waste discharge by the household, collection, disposal, and also treatment.

Parallel with the CEA with the collaboration of the ministry of local government and the national solid waste and support centre, they developed kind of more comprehensive broader guidelines considering of pandemic situation by first targeting western provinces and secondly the entire country.

These are the National and Regional Guidelines for Municipal Solid Waste during the Covid-19 pandemic;

Waste Management Authority-Western Province issued 1st formal guideline for Local Authorities in Western Province

  • Waste discharge guidelines for households
  • Waste collection guidelines for Local Authorities
  • Waste disposal guidelines for Local Authorities
  • Guidelines for Health and safety workers

Though the above guidelines are developed, there are some considerable issues while handling municipal waste during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Especially the Local Authorities do not have sufficient in-house capacity to adapt guidelines because no sanitary landfills or incinerator facilities. Also, some Local Authorities have stopped source-segregated waste collection/ processing due to contamination and the risk of manual sorting/handling.

Another issue is, except in Western Province, there is no mechanism to guarantee that Local Authorities follow the instruction.  Also, the health and safety of waste collection and handling workers are of paramount importance while handling municipal waste during the pandemic.

There are some unsolved issues with collection workers. Most workers live in slums/line houses and there are several incidences where their communities have already been infected. Furthermore, there are some social and financial issues due to lockdown (loss of secondary/family income)

Challenges of Clinical Waste Management During Covid-19 Pandemic

All the waste generated within healthcare facilities, research centres and laboratories related to medical procedures is healthcare/clinical waste. Healthcare waste can be categorized into main three, they are; general waste which is non-hazardous recycling waste, hazardous waste and highly hazardous waste. Hazardous wastes are 15%-20% of the whole healthcare waste.

It is important to be aware of the scientific management of Covid-19-associated clinical waste. Especially the improper handling of Covid-19 contaminated waste can transmit the virus to healthy person an indirect way. Therefore Covid waste must be securely handled and disposed of strictly in adherence to health and environmental regulations by avoiding cross contaminations.

Ministry of health and indigenous medical service introduced guidelines for the management of Covid-19 infectious waste.

Accordingly, the waste should be treated using only incineration or through Metamizers. And generator should arrange the waste disposal within 24 hours. As well generators should collect the waste into a double bagged yellow plastic bag of gauge 300. Properly sealed waste bags and sharp waste should be collected in standard sharp boxes and marked and labelled in red colour mentioning ‘Covid-19 waste’ for easy identification.

The process of Covid-19 waste management should be done very carefully because it is a major determinant of the spread of the disease.

As a first step in the process, the contaminants suspected to be Covid are collected from the hospitals in accordance with the prescribed guidelines. Second, waste-filled bins are automatically loaded into the vehicle. In the third stage, safe transportation methods are used. After that, the disposal facility is automatically unloaded and in the fifth stage, the containers are fed to the incinerator bucket feeder. Finally, the waste is incinerated at 12000 C in accordance with environmental guidelines with the first incineration priority.

There is a major issue when handling clinical waste during Covid-19. ie; the use of personal protective equipment in society has increased with the Covid-19 pandemic situation and the disposal of such PPEs in improper ways leads to create environmental pollution in addition to adverse health impacts.

Indrajith Udaya Kumara

BSc. (UWU) B.Eng. (UEL) MSc in Env. Mgt – Reading (Kel’ya)


Photo Credits


“Challenges of waste management during COVID19 Pandemic” IEPSL Webinar: January 2021