We all know by now that keeping our hands clean is one of the most effective ways to keep the coronavirus away. But what if it’s your job to get your hands dirty?
Waste collectors do just that every day to keep our cities clean, pandemic or not.
We might think that the virus disappears, for all intents and purposes, once we place our possibly contaminated garbage outside. Not so for sanitation workers, both formal and informal, who become susceptible to exposure. In close contact with massive quantities of waste, including materials on which the virus can stay alive for many hours, they provide a service that is quite possibly more needed than ever.
“In this emergency situation excessive amounts of garbage in cities can host the virus and facilitate the spread of the disease,” says Alfredo Rihm, a specialist in solid-waste management at the IDB. “This accumulation must be avoided, both inside and outside houses. That’s why it is essential to maintain the continuity of sanitation services.”
A study recently published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that the coronavirus remains viable on surfaces for several hours. While the amount of viable particles decreases over time on any material, the virus survives longer on plastic and stainless steel than on copper and cardboard.
And so, if we need to discard our trash for our own health, and care for the wellbeing of waste collectors, too, what can we do?
Create “additional barriers” between waste collectors and the virus, says Rihm.
“We can dispose of waste in a way that minimizes the risk to the workers who collect it. If possible, waste should be wrapped in two or three bags to help them avoid coming into contact with potentially contaminated surfaces,” he says.
Even in non-pandemic times, waste collectors face a big challenge: our consumerist societies generate vast amounts of garbage. Latin America and the Caribbean produced an average of 231 million tons of urban solid waste per year in 2016, representing 11% of the world’s total. The region’s average discharge per capita was 0.99 kg/day, behind North America, Europe and Central Asia.
Now, in today’s extraordinary context, urban trash contains a flood of healthcare materials. Hospitals, healthcare facilities and common homes, alike, are relying on disposable gloves, masks, and other personal protective equipment (PPE) – all of which is eventually disposed of.
"All of the people who benefit from waste services have to help care for and protect the employees. They have to throw away garbage in a way that minimizes the risk to these public servants," says Rihm.
He advises that waste collectors wear PPE and follow proper hygiene practices, like medical professionals. These include washing hands with soap for at least 20 seconds, disinfecting surfaces and maintaining social distance, among other measures.
According to a survey of data by the IDB, solid-waste management represents up to 40% of municipal budgets in Latin America and the Caribbean. Today, the need to invest in this service and the people who make it work has taken on a new urgency as part of a truly global fight.
Various countries have implemented strategies to protect waste collectors during the pandemic. In the United States, many have been instructed to use PPE, clean trucks and equipment, wash hands regularly and follow other practices. The government of Brazil has advised waste companies to design plans to control the spread of the virus, including through administrative and hygiene protocols. Shortages of supplies remain a factor around the world.
Individuals have a key role to play as well, says Sergio Campos, head of the IDB’s Water and Sanitation Division. Many have significantly modified their lives and daily routines, and they can make adjustments with waste collectors in mind, too:
“Combating the coronavirus pandemic is a shared responsibility. Not only should we all practice good hygiene and make sure that possibly contaminated waste is sealed, we must also support solid-waste workers as they provide this vital service to keep our cities clean and healthy.”
To learn more about the IDB’s response to the coronavirus, visit our new information hub.