As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to effect people around the world, environmentalists are worried about the waste that could potentially build up from the over usage of disinfectants, while health experts worry about the exposure to COVID-19 when handling waste.

Several cities like St. Catharines, Waterloo, and Ottawa have already temporarily changed how they will collect waste from now on to protect their waste collection workers from being potentially exposed to the virus while on the job.

In Waterloo specifically, the safety of workers is being put first at the cost of not sorting waste properly. Residents in the region are being asked to put all their used tissues, napkins, plastic bottles, and anything else that has been touched by a sick person in the garbage, not in the green bin (compost) or blue bin (recycling) which is where they would usually go.

In Ottawa, residents are being asked to continue using their green bins, unlike Waterloo, but to place their used tissues and products in a plastic bag before placing them in their green bin.

On March 17, the Region of Peel sent out a media release reminding residents of how they should handle their waste during this time. The release reviewed proper waste disposal of used wipes, which should be placed in the garbage, and paper towels, which should be placed in the compost rather than in the toilet.

“We understand that in response to the novel coronavirus residents are using disinfectant wipes to help protect themselves and their families. However, flushing certain items, like wipes, down your toilet can cause clogged pipes. It can also result in costly sewer maintenance,” said Anthony Parente, General Manager of Water and Wastewater services at Peel Region, in the release.

The Medium interviewed Robert Haller, the Executive Director for Canadian Water and Wastewater Association (CWWA), to discuss the impact COVID-19 has had on waste handling and management.

The Medium: What are some problems that COVID-19 is bringing to waste management?

Haller: For years we have seen a lot of feminine hygiene products, paper towels, and a myriad of weird things getting flushed. But now, since the start of this COVID-19 challenge, we are seeing a great spike in the flushing of ‘alternatives’ to toilet paper.

We are also seeing many more non-flushable cleaning wipes, rubber gloves, face masks and other items being flushed instead of going in the garbage can.

TM: What do you advise people to do during this time?

H: With toilet paper sold out at all stores, people need to consider alternatives. We have to get them to NOT flush them. They must be put into a garbage bag beside the toilet. Then that bag must be tied safely to get into a larger garbage bag for curbside collection.

TM: Can you explain further what the 3 P’s are and why they are important? 

H: For the toilet, the 3 P’s are pee, poop, and paper (strictly toilet paper). For years we have been trying to get out the message that you cannot put anything down the toilet other than the 3P’s and nothing down the sink except (reasonably) dirty water—not fats, oils, or grease.

Facial tissues should not be flushed and even some triple-ply toilet papers are concerning. For the last several years, we have seen an increase in popularity of so-called ‘flushable’ wipes, but they are NOT flushable as far as the wastewater professionals are concerned.

These items cause clogs. To your toilet, to your sewer line, or to your whole street. This backs up sewage into your home which will demand your evacuation during a lengthy and expensive clean-up. This overflows raw sewage onto the street and into local waterways. This puts wastewater workers at risk unnecessarily.

Although there are concerns with how waste will be handled in the coming weeks, satellite imagery has shown some environmental benefits from the virus.

In China, particularly in Wuhan where the outbreak originally started before spreading internationally, there have been drastic drops in nitrogen dioxide levels. Data shared by NASA shows that nitrogen dioxide levels in eastern and central China have decreased by 10-30 per cent since January.

To combat the spread of COVID-19, driving cars and everyday factory operations, which emit nitrogen oxide, have been shut down across the country. This is presumed to be the reason behind the drop of nitrogen dioxide levels.

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