What is domestic solid waste?

Domestic solid waste consists of everyday items such as packaging, disposable cleaning materials or kitchen waste.

The widespread use of disposable personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves combined with the renewed popularity of single-use plastics has led to a dramatic increase in the volumes of domestic waste generated during the COVID-19 pandemic, as highlighted in this report and by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Domestic waste items, such as cleaning materials or tissues and masks that have been used by an infected individual, may be contaminated with SARS-CoV-2. The virus may survive for hours to days on surfaces, and up to a week on a surgical mask. Domestic waste could thus potentially carry some risk of virus transmission in the absence of adequate waste management systems.

What should be done with domestic solid waste in the COVID-19 context?

According to the European Commission, there is no evidence to date suggesting that domestic solid waste plays a role in COVID-19 transmission and international agencies consistently recommend to follow standard solid waste management procedures.

WHO recommendations for solid waste management in the home in presence of a sick, quarantined or convalescing individual include the following:

  • Rapidly dispose of potentially infectious materials, such as tissues used when sneezing or coughing or disposable clothes used for cleaning, into a waste bin. ECDC recommends the use of separate waste bins for sick individuals and other household members, whereas according to some national guidelines, all waste produced by households with COVID-19 positive individuals should be considered as infectious waste.

  • Use strong, completely closed bags to pack waste. Double bagging can also help ensure infectious waste items are safely packed (e.g. a small bin liner could be used by the infected individual, then closed and added to a larger bag for municipal waste collection). To reduce direct contact with potentially contaminated waste, UNEP recommends to seal bags before they are 70% filled. National guidelines should be followed regarding the use of color-coded waste bags or containers.

  • Waste bags can be picked up and treated by municipal collection services following national guidelines or UN-HABITAT recommendations (and with workers wearing adequate personal protective equipment). In absence of such services, safe burying or controlled burning may be considered as alternatives. Please note that waste with high humidity contents (e.g. food waste) is not suitable for burning, and open dumping or burning of solid waste presents environmental and health hazards. Some recommendations for the safe burying and/or incineration of solid waste are provided here, in this guide (Chapter 5) as well as in this document (pages 18-23).

  • Wash hands with soap or use an alcohol-based hand rub after any contact with waste.

How should we dispose of used masks and other protective equipment?

After use, masks and gloves should be removed carefully, avoiding contact with parts of the mask or glove that could be contaminated (e.g. inside of the mask or outside of gloves - see Figure below). Hands should be washed with soap or sanitised using an alcohol-based hand rub afterwards. These videos show in more detail how to properly wear and remove a surgical mask and gloves.

Please note that the use of gloves in community settings is not currently recommended by WHO and CDC, except when caring for a sick individual.

How to remove gloves and masks. Source: CDC

Single-use PPE (such as disposable masks, gloves, or worn-out fabric masks) should be disposed of immediately after their removal, following the recommendations outlined above for domestic solid waste. They should not be recycled or thrown into toilets, where they could clog sewers. Littering of masks and gloves could have dramatic ecological consequences.

Given mask shortages in some settings, the WHO recommends precautions be taken to avoid the collection and re-selling of used masks that have been disposed of. Besides completely closing waste bags, these precautions may include defining fenced, regulated areas for waste disposal. Context-specific risk communication and community engagement strategies should also be considered to protect informal waste pickers if relevant.

Promoting reusable fabric face masks can minimise unnecessary waste. Reusable (fabric) masks should be washed and dried according to manufacturers’ instructions - general guidance is provided in this section.

What other resources are there on solid waste management?

The International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) documents solid waste management practices and guidelines across different countries on their website.

Editor's Note

Author: Karin Gallandat
Review: Molly Patrick, Sheillah Simiyu, Alessandra Ginocchi
Last Update: 24.8.2020

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