Indonesia Needs to Urgently Tackle Covid-19 Waste

A most pressing public health problem.

The enormous amount of hazardous waste generated from the Covid-19 pandemic, if not handle properly, is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.  

The continuous amount of hazardous waste, for example biohazardous medical waste, discarded personal protection equipment and facemasks, among others, are beginning to overwhelm the country’s waste treatment capacity.  There are strict standard operating procedures from the World Health Organization, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Environment and Forestry for their disposal.  

And importantly, non-compliance may lead to a healthcare and environmental crisis because of the volume of waste generated and its contagious nature.  The improper management or non-treatment of Covid-19 waste poses serious risks of disease transmission to society in general through exposure to infectious agents and contaminants.

According to secretary general of the Indonesian Environmental Scientist Association (IESA) Dr. Lina Tri Mugi Astuti, the root cause of insufficient capacity must be addressed urgently so as not to pose any further serious risks than what the country is already facing in fighting the pandemic.

“Currently, there are about 17 to 20 waste treatment facilities with a total of 400 tons per day of processing capacity.  On the other hand, based on my calculation, the accumulated COVID-19 waste from last year to now is at 90,000 tons.  There is clearly a huge gap and given the current capacity, it is hard to clear the backlog,” Astuti said, adding that the situation is bound to get worse if the infection rate does not slow down.

The government steps in

The government has recently announced that it will allocate US$90 million to enhance COVID-19 waste treatment. While the funding is appreciated, Astuti cautioned that it is also important to have a detailed and well-researched master plan, including the allocation of fund, the execution of proposals and whether the management of the completed extra facilities fall under local governments, private sector or region-owned enterprises.  She is of the opinion that if the extra facilities are to operate as for-profit enterprises, then it will be best to leave them to the private sector.

However, regardless of whichever entity is operating the facilities, Astuti emphasized that the main objective is to help alleviate the contagious waste problem and at the same time, keeping disposal cost down for the healthcare system.  Also, it is important to equitably allocate the fund to all 33 provinces and to pay more attention to regions with severely limited waste treatment capability.

Taking care of public health

Beside the contagious waste from hospitals and healthcare institutions, with large numbers of home quarantine, household biohazardous waste is piling up too.  Astuti said officials have the responsibility to ensure that there is proper infrastructure for waste collection and that the people understand how to properly disposed of such waste.  Education plays an important role in letting the people know that their actions have a direct impact on public health. 

“Districts and sub-districts, together with local public health centers, are responsible to disseminate information to households. Heads of subdivisions must actively look for a way to collect and transport the contagious waste for treatment and avoid accumulating such waste in their areas,” Astuti said.

On the national level, Astuti said all relevant ministries have a responsibility to help the country overcome the growing waste problem.  For example, the Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs and Investment can play an important part in looking for potential private sector partners if the government is to engage in public-private partnerships. 

The authority should also have a clear-cut regulation to facilitate waste treatment and cut down on bureaucracy to simplify the whole process from collection to treatment.  Astuti said local governments must be able to quickly obtain the relevant licenses and approval from the relevant ministries to manage hazardous waste.  

With a committed government handing out the much-needed funding for extra waste treatment plants, now is a good time to lay out the foundation of a national waste treatment plan to look beyond the pandemic and take into account future needs as well.  This is an opportunity to overhaul the existing system and turn it into a well-regarded infrastructure that has the capacity to take care of the current and future generation.

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