Discarded PPE kits at airports pose new biomedical waste challenge

The six busiest airports in India — Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Chennai — are together handling more than 6,000 kilos of biowaste every day, compared with almost zero in the pre-Covid times, said executives at the airports.

Mumbai: The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a massive spurt in biomedical waste at airports in the form of PPE kits discarded by air passengers post flights, said several people in the know.

The health ministry mandates all PPE kits, not just in hospitals and health centres but also common user areas such as airports, need to be discarded.

The six busiest airports in India — Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Chennai — are together handling more than 6,000 kilos of such waste every day, compared with almost zero in the pre-Covid times, said executives at the airports. An additional 500 kilos of plastic used to wrap these kits are also being discarded daily.


Airlines in India daily use and discard close to 80,000 such kits, primarily the gowns worn by passengers in middle seats in a row, according to data collated from multiple airline executives.

The kits are collected in specific bio-medical waste bins. Almost all these airports have tied up with third-party contractors that collect the waste and incinerate them.

“Health is a state subject and states need to follow the detailed guidelines for bio-medical waste management as already issued,” minister of state for health Ashwini Kumar Chaubey told ET.
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“Discarded PPEs from general public at commercial establishments, shopping malls, institutions, offices, etc., should be stored in separate bin for three days, thereafter disposed of as dry general solid waste after cutting/shredding," according to a notification from the Central Pollution Control Board.

“This is definitely an area of concern,” said Sunita Narain, director general at Centre for Science and Environment. "Airports come within the list of who we classify as bulk generators of biomedical waste. Each airport needs to come with its own set of proper guidelines on segregating, recycling and processing these waste materials," she told ET.

Discarded PPE Kits at Airports a New Challenge

“Airports need to have a proper channel for segregated collection, treatment, and disposal of plastic waste especially contaminated PPE kits,” concurred Meher Kaur, a research associate at TERI.

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While airports follow procedure, passengers often don’t

“Passengers often throw scraps of food and packets in the same bio-waste bin meant for PPE kits. The contractors don’t accept them,” said an executive at the Bengaluru airport.

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The airport staff then has to scavenge through the waste, separate food and other articles from the PPE kits and submit it to the contractor.

Also, the jury is out on whether such PPE kits can be washed and reused. Even if they were, most passengers wouldn’t be willing to do it, said an airport executive. In that case, and in the absence of procedures and designated areas for discarding them, people would throw kits everywhere which would be more bio-hazardous, she added.

“Some policies are made to err on the side of caution. Having said that, since PPE kits will be part of the new normal at airports, there need to be advisories gradually built into the system for their wash and reuse to avoid the humongous wastage,” said a former head of the Indian Council of Medical Research, who didn’t want to be named.
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