Stellenbosch University
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Covid-19 and waste management
Author: FMHS Marketing & Communications / FGGW Bemarking & Kommunikasie – Florence de Vries
Published: 27/10/2020

The use of single-use items like nitrile gloves, disposable face masks and sanitiser bottles has surged in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Protective ​measures need to be taken against Covid-19 but it's time to start practising better habits at the same time, for the sake of our environment. 

This is the view of Professor Wolfgang Preiser, head of the division of Medical Virology at Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences and member of the Faculty Dean's Advisory Committee on Environmental Sustainability (DACES). Excess packaging as a result of an increase in online shopping and takeaway food as well as disposable masks and gloves, visors and screens have meant a boom in plastic just as people were starting to wake up to its environmental impact but everyone needs to make a concerted effort to ensure we're looking after the environment. 

 “We are inadvertently creating more waste because of the use of disposable sanitiser bottles, wipes and masks. And while we don't have specific statistics for South Africa at the moment, I am sure that the more affluent parts of our society have created more waste than they might realise these past few months," says Preiser. 

A recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) lists the following as problems due to the pandemic: an increased amount of plastic waste (due to lockdowns),increased littering, illegal dumping and open burning, suspension of recycling activities and mixing of infectious waste such as gloves, masks, tissues, and gauze with other wastes (exposure to transmission). 

The International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) estimates that single-use plastic items has grown by up to 300% in the USA. In addition, recycling systems in large parts of the world – including South Africa – seems to have stalled. “I believe this is a mixture of economic turndowns and manufacturing slump during lockdowns. Recycling needs people to collect and then process, and someone to use the products. With many industries at a standstill, this stops," says Preiser. 

Waste management on Tygerberg campus

​With many industries picking up again, it is time to refocus our energies on ensuring long-term sustainability – one tenet of this is to actively avoid or minimise and if not possible, recycle plastic in its many forms as often as possible. “The environmental crisis, not limited to but including climate issues, have led academic institutions like ours to re-evaluate and redesign their solid waste management systems. Waste separation at source is possible almost everywhere but often not done at all, or done poorly. 

If you are back on Tygerberg Campus for work or study purposes, make a concerted effort to use the three-bin system, which is available in all of our campus buildings, to dispose of waste. And do it well – do not throw “contaminated" (e.g. with food still inside) containers into the recyclables but tip them out (into the compost bin) then toss them into the recycling." 

The campus coffee shop, Cups & Saucers also supports the Greater Tygerberg Project (GTP) (insert link: whereby staff and students may drop their plastic bottles and cans in the trolley in front of the coffee shop. Staff and students are welcome to bring their recyclables from home and drop it off there, to benefit the environment and uplift those who make a living from recycling what others want to dispose of.

Waste management at home

If you find yourself still working from home at this time, do some research about recycling services available in your area and separate your waste in that way. Some areas in the northern and southern suburbs of Cape Town already have a municipal recycling collection system. Others, says Preiser, have access to facilities like primary schools where they are able to drop off glass, tins, plastic bottles and paper. In addition, try to compost your biodegradable waste, i.e. garden refuse and compostable kitchen waste. To support residents in minimising their waste, the City of Cape Town occasionally makes compost bins available free of charge. Preiser says that organic waste, when buried at rubbish dumps, aerobically converts to methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas.

Contaminated gloves and masks

“If you need to wear disposable gloves or masks, these must be disposed of safely," says Preiser. Healthcare workers follow strict protocols with respect to the disposal of contaminated and potentially hazardous waste. “If you are sure your disposable mask or gloves are not contaminated, you should not have worn them", says Preiser. In general, disposable (latex or nitrile) gloves do not have a place in everyday life and should only be used by people in certain occupations, like healthcare workers. Disposable masks of any kind are unnecessary for the public, too – another advantage of cloth (non-medical) masks is that they are cheaper, often more comfortable and can simply be washed rather than having to be disposed of.

Preiser says potentially contaminated sanitary items do not belong into recycling bins because they are not recyclable and must not expose recycling workers or informal waste pickers to an infection risk. “If you're at home, the advice for potentially contaminated COVID-19 waste is to bag it separately and leave the bag for a week (tie bag closed and write date on it). By then any virus will have “died" and is no longer be infectious. Remember that wipes must never end up in the toilet. They are made from man-made fibres and not biodegradable (unlike toilet paper). If flushed, they may end up blocking your drain; those that make it through are likely to end up in the ocean adding to the “plastic soup" that is choking marine life."

Preiser warns against exaggerated precautionary measures: “There is no need to spray grocery shopping with disinfectants or wipe everything down with wet wipes all the time. Your shopping is not going to infect you with the coronavirus. The virus is not very stable and will be rendered harmless by normal cleaning, or simply with time. The risk of infection stems from close contact with infectious individuals, whether symptomatic or not, and this is why we all need to take universal precautions." 

For more information about recycling services in the Cape Town area, visit:

City of Cape Town Waste minimisation infographic

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Report: Waste Management during the COVID-19 Pandemic: from response to recovery. 12 August 2020.