Handling COVID-19 Related Public Waste

Handling COVID-19 Related Public Waste


The COVID-19 pandemic is not only causing widespread global turmoil but is also raising questions on how to handle waste.

The Kenya Government recently made it mandatory for all citizens to wear Personal Protective Masks while in public to help limit the spread of COVID-19 virus. Prior to this directive, waste from Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as masks has largely been treated as medical waste with protocols already existing for proper disposal within Kenya’s health infrastructure. Now that protective masks are mandatory, there is a need for the Government to provide disposal protocols for the public to help reduce further public health and environmental impacts. There is also a need for the public and other stakeholders to act responsibly in the handling of COVID-19 Related Public Waste.

Clean Up Kenya has therefore developed several recommendations to urge stakeholders to enact some actions to minimize the health and environmental impacts of COVID-19 Related Public Waste.

For clarity, COVID-19 Related Public Waste as used in this article refers to any materials such as face masks or hand gloves that may be used by a member of the public to protect themselves and others from the spread of the virus. The term does not refer to materials used in a health facility setting. The materials used by the public does not also mean the person who used them is infected or in significant danger of being infected or the materials are automatically contaminated.

Here is an example of COVID-19 Related Public Waste. If this personal protective mask is contaminated, this can easily have a ripple-on health effect – from an informal PET waste collector who often lacks protective gear picking the bottle from the trash and taking it to an informal community PET buyer and to the community. The picture was taken in Naivasha at a Material Recovery Center in April 2020 courtesy of Kagwe James

Stakeholder Recommendations

Here are some recommendations to different stakeholders:

1. National Government

We urge the National Government through related public health and environment mandated agencies to quickly and widely publish guidelines on the handling of COVID-19 Related Public Waste.

2. County Government

We urge County Governments to;

  • Come up with enhanced protocols at commissioned dumpsites that respects the safety and dignity of all those who have access. This is particularly for waste handlers, which reduces their exposure to COVID-19 through waste contamination
  • Put a moratorium in place on the participation of all informal waste pickers in waste management by ordering the closure of all informal material recovery centres. This is to protect this vulnerable group from exposure.
  • Regularly disinfect all municipal waste at markets, bus parks and bays, and any transfer stations on a daily basis and/or before transportation to commissioned dumpsites
  • Increase the consistency of collection of municipal waste, particularly in informal settlements

3. Private Sector

We urge all businesses and organisations, among others, to follow all government related COVID-19 directives. They should also put enhanced protocols in place to disinfect all waste before transportation to dumpsites. This will avoid exposing vulnerable groups to COVID-19, particularly those who are involved in waste handling.

4. Advocacy Groups

We urge advocacy groups particularly those that work in communities to;

  • Safely sensitize communities on COVID-19 related government directives. They can also expand their work to include areas of proper disposal and management of COVID-19 Related Public Waste
  • Help protect and expand the sanitation rights of all Kenyans by working with government and other stakeholders. This is particularly for vulnerable groups such as informal waste handlers and persons living in close proximity with illegal dumpsites or waste transfer stations

5. Waste Handlers

We urge all Licensed Waste Handling Businesses, such as transporters, recyclers, Extended Producer Responsibilities practitioners, among others to:

  • Follow all directives from the government, including existing laws and by-laws on waste handling
  • Institute enhanced measures that protect the public from COVID-19 exposure
  • Safeguard the rights and dignity of waste handling workers through the provision of appropriate occupational and safety gear, periodic training, and support in case of exposure.

6. The Public

We urge all citizens and organizations to comply with all directives issued by the government regarding COVID-19. These guidelines when followed, will not only limit the spread of the virus but will significantly reduce the accumulation of COVID-19 Related Public Waste.

These include;

  • Practising social distancing by avoiding non-essential visits to public places. Working from home, where possible, will significantly reduce the need to use face masks, which are becoming one of the largest streams of COVID-19 Related Public Waste.
  • Keeping a safe distance from other people (1-3 meters) and always wearing government-approved face masks while in public as required by the law will significantly reduce the spread of the virus. Additionally, disposable face masks and hand gloves should not be disposed of in public bins or by littering. Users should take these masks back home where they should be disinfected before applying already existing legal waste disposal protocols or any additional government directives that may be declared.
  • Avoiding unnecessary touching of surfaces in public spaces, regularly washing your hands with running water and soap for at least 20 seconds, using government-approved hand sanitizers, and regular disinfection of frequently used surfaces including cell phones, headphones and laptops will help limit the spread of the virus to other materials that may need to be disposed of as waste.
  • Practising other personal hygiene protocols such as not touching your eyes, nose or mouth and always covering coughs and sneezes with an elbow or other protective material will also help limit the spread of the virus to other materials that may need to be disinfected or disposed of as waste. Additionally, any protective materials used for covering coughs and sneezes such as handkerchiefs should be disinfected as recommended by the government.
  • Finally, we want to remind everyone to desist from littering and engaging in illegal dumping, and to dispose of waste safely as required by the law.
  • For Government Updates on COVID-19, Dial *719# or Call Toll Free Number 0800721316.

To download these recommendations in PDF, click here.

Since the publication of this article, the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) has released guidelines for handling COVID-19 related waste. To download NEMA guidelines, click here.

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