Change in waste fractions during COVID-19 pandemic

Written by
Dr Ayub Macharia


COVID-19 was pronounced as a pandemic on Wednesday 11th March 2020 by the World Health Organization. Many countries immediately imposed diverse restrictions including lockdowns aimed at reducing physical contacts between people.

People were restricted to their homes and many commercial enterprises were closed or operated with reduced workforce. These responses also implied a change in waste composition especially in urban areas.

1. Household waste

Household waste is also referred to as domestic waste or residential waste, and comprises of disposable materials generated by households. The waste could be comprised of non-hazardous or hazardous waste fractions. Non-hazardous fractions can include food scraps, paper, bottles, etc. which can be recycled or composted. Examples of hazardous waste include batteries, electronic equipment, etc. 

The COVID-19 epidemic required people to be confined indoors.  At home, people eat more food.  A lot of shopping was done online and home deliveries required the items to be packaged. This led to increase in household waste such as food waste and packaging waste. 

At household level, COVID-19 required people to wear face masks and use gloves, which after use become infectious biomedical waste. With increase in cases of COVID-19 infections, there was an increase in the volumes of the biomedical waste in form of masks and gloves at household level.


2. Commercial waste

Commercial waste consists of waste from premises used mainly for the general purposes of a business or trade or for the purpose of recreation, education, sport, entertainment, wholesalers, catering establishments, shops and offices. Since the commercial areas were closed or operated at minimal capacity, there was notable reduction in waste generation.


3. Agricultural waste

Agricultural waste refers to unwanted waste produced as a result of agricultural activities and includes manure, oil, silage plastics, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides; wastes from farms, poultry houses and slaughterhouses, veterinary medicines etc. The requirement to maintain social distancing to curb disease spread, could have led to reduction of agricultural activities especially in labor intensive farms and hence reduction in agricultural waste. However, its also notable that when people stay at home, they eat more times and hence increase demand for farm produce leading to increased use of farm chemicals and packaging, all leading to increased waste.


4. Industrial waste

Industrial waste emanates from factories and industrial plants. The COVID-19 slogan of “Stay home” and “keep social distance” contributed to closure on downsizing of workforce for many industries. This contributed to reduction of waste generation from the industries. 


5. Construction waste

Construction waste is generated through all stages of construction, site clean-ups, and domestic clean-ups. Commercial waste is non-hazardous and usually consists of a mixture of timber, concrete, bricks, tile, rubble, metal, plastics, plasterboard, cardboard, and paper. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many construction sites were closed and hence the volumes of waste generated was low.


6. Medical waste

COVID-19 has contributed an increase in use of personal protective equipment in medical facilities such as masks, gloves, boots, googles, overalls etc. There is also emphasis on mass testing of the citizens and this increases use of reagents and other equipment. Since the number of infected cases are high, there is a corresponding high volume of medical waste emanating from personal protective equipment.

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