The total amount of medical waste gathered across Hubei province on February 24 totalled 365 tonnes, of which 60 per cent came from hospitals, the report said. By comparison, Wuhan produced 17,000 tonnes of medical waste in the whole of 2018, according to the country’s top environment watchdog. Eric Liu, a toxic waste specialist at Greenpeace’s Beijing office, said China had a huge shortage of waste disposal facilities, specifically those capable of handling clinical waste.
“The waste treatment capacity in China, especially in terms of medical and hazardous waste, is barely enough to cope with everyday needs, let alone the country’s biggest public health crisis in decades,” he said. While the environment ministry said most medical waste was being properly dealt with in major cities, just 31 per cent of the country’s 629,000 tonnes of medical waste were treated in 2015, up from 24 per cent in 2008, Xinhua reported last year, citing an industry study.
Du Huanzheng, director of the Recycling Economy Institute at Tongji University in Shanghai, also expressed concerns over the widening supply-demand gap in medical waste treatment, but said a large number of new facilities were being built or planned. “The disposal of medical waste is a major part of the battle against the outbreak, which is a wake-up call for the government to speed up the construction of new facilities and research into waste treatment technologies,” he said.
The coronavirus outbreak could be the catalyst for expanding the medical waste sector and lead to the building of more incineration facilities, the experts said. They said combustion remained the preferred means for disposing of medical waste in China, although industrialised countries were phasing out incinerators due to health and environmental concerns. Masks could be split into three categories, Liu said. While clinical waste must be disposed of at dedicated incineration facilities, masks used by healthy people could be tackled in a similar way as household waste, which was burnt in industrial furnaces, he said.
The real challenge came from those used by people who were placed under home quarantine or others with mild symptoms, he said. “There is a grey area over this kind of used mask, which are not under the jurisdiction of medical institutions but should be treated in accordance with standards for medical waste.” In Wuhan, authorities are scrambling to find solutions to the challenge. The environment ministry said the city’s five incinerators for household waste disposal and various industrial furnaces at cement and other factories had also been assigned to help clear the garbage backlog, which stood at about 190 tonnes as of February 24.
According to a report by China Economic Daily, Wuhan is rushing to build more medical waste treatment plants near hospitals, including ones near Huoshenshan, Leishenshan and Jinyintan hospitals that will treat nine, 15 and four tonnes of clinical garbage respectively on a daily basis. A total of 17 temporary storage facilities for medical waste, with a combined capacity of more than 1,000 tonnes, have also been built.
While authorities had to transfer some of the garbage produced in Wuhan to neighbouring cities for incineration, they have also tried to enlist help from waste treatment companies around the country. China Shipping Group and a company in Anhui deployed a number of mobile medical waste incineration cabins to Wuhan last month, Xinhua reported. The incinerators, each of which is capable of processing five tonnes of waste a day, were first used in 2003 during the Sars outbreak.