Action needed now for pandemic pollution

Published: 3rd May 2022

a disposable blue mask floating in the ocean above coral


By Rudolph Pretzler, LGAQ Policy Officer, Waste and Public Health

Over the past decade, no single issue has grabbed the attention of the public as much as climate change.

Those that could, and were willing, searched for ways to improve their carbon footprint, with many of us starting to question our consumption behaviour. By now, it is quite clear that the way we deal with our waste is not sustainable. The current model of make, use, dispose cannot be sustained long term and needs to be replaced with a more circular approach.

In 2020, this realisation was quickly undermined by the outbreak of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Reuseable coffee cups, shareable crockery and secondhand clothing quickly became a potential source of infection and individual choices to reduce one’s carbon footprint that much harder. And while Queensland’s single-use plastic ban was an important step in the right direction, the pandemic brought forth new waves of waste, created by the need for increased personal safety and social distancing.

On a global scale, the pandemic has created eight million tons of extra plastic in 2020, compared to 2019. A shocking 75 per cent of this can be attributed to clinical sources. This is not surprising considering the amount of personal protective equipment we all had to go through to keep our hospitals from being overwhelmed. And Queensland’s communities have done a great job at that. While other parts of the country and overseas have been on the brink of breakdown, Queenslanders have been able to go on—at a price.

Clinical Waste

Across the country, spotting the discarded single-use mask in the gutter has become a normal part of life—and a growing problem for landfill operators and local governments across the state. While the single-use mask
used by the public is not considered clinical waste (and neither is the RAT at home), they are currently not recycled, winding back some gains we’ve made in diverting waste away from landfill.

However, hospitals and aged care facilities have other standards. There, all PPE ‘visibly contaminated’ and all components of test kits used to collect samples are considered clinical waste, and clinical waste needs to be disposed of in very specific ways. Especially in regional and remote areas where they often have no access to autoclaves, appropriate chemicals or suitable microwaves to disinfect the material, leaving only the most environmentally harmful method: incineration.

And while most hospitals are equipped to deal with their clinical waste on site, the massive increase has led them to look for other alternatives, like local landfills—many of which are not equipped and/or licensed to deal with this hazardous material.

What can council do?

Local government needs to stay vigilant, as we cannot hope that this pandemic is the last transgression from the norm. It is important to stay agile, and should things go against plans, councils should engage early with the State Government, the Chief Health Officer and other organisations as needed to prepare for, and persevere through, changing dynamics.

While the pandemic has created many new waste streams we were not prepared for, it also demonstrated to the State Government that they can be agile and responsive if needed. The Department of Environment and Science has sent a clear message that it has the emergency powers to change environmental authorities (EA), if on a temporary basis, should local authorities be faced with waste volumes or streams that go beyond their current authority. Every EA holder is encouraged to communicate their concerns to the department as early as possible.

So, councils would be well advised to remember these learnings for future situations where our communities are faced with some unforeseeable changes to the status quo and remind the state of their previous agility when COVID-19 hit. Finding solutions in a timely manner and being flexible in changing circumstances seem to be no longer an antithesis to the traditional machinations of government, at least in the Department of Environment and Science.