Covid-19 or the novel Coronavirus has impacted almost every sphere of our lives, be it personal, professional, or social. The pandemic has caused a change in the societal values and perceptions of the people regarding each and every aspect of their lives. With these changes in values and morals, a simultaneous effect has been seen on the laws and statutes governing the people. One such subject is environmental law. Coronavirus has been an eye-opener for the authorities to revise various standards set up in the environmental laws in order to achieve better results. It has also brought the attention of the people and authorities towards the problematic areas that caused the most harm to the environment.
This article discusses some of the ways in which the Coronavirus pandemic has affected the environmental laws, like leniency in its enforcement, new guidelines for the disposal of biomedical waste generated, especially during the treatment of the virus, and the launch of a special app by the Central Pollution Control Board for the tracking of the biomedical waste.
Ever since the onset of the Coronavirus Pandemic, there has been a slowdown in human activity across the globe due to the lockdowns imposed. This lockdown has not only given people time to spend quality time with their families but has also had a rather positive impact on nature. It has been a wake-up call for humans to rethink their ways.
There has been an unprecedented fall in pollution levels all across the globe, which could not be achieved even after several attempts by the authorities. The water bodies have become cleaner due to the halt on industrial activities which has led to a significant decline in the discharge of industrial waste in rivers. Moreover, the animals and birds have started to reclaim the land as there have been rare sightings of some believed to be extinct birds and animals around the world.
All these instances are an indication that our ‘Mother Earth’ can still be saved. It shows that it isn’t the planet that needs us, it is we who need the planet. It is an eye-opener, a time to introspect and look for sustainable options, if we want to protect our home, our motherland.
The pandemic has already changed the lives of people in so many ways including social values and morals, which in turn affects the people’s approach towards the environment and efficacy of existing laws on the subject in handling the pandemic. It thus begs the question, what can be said to be the impact of this pandemic on the environmental laws?
Covid-19 and Environmental Laws
The coronavirus or covid-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation on 11th March 2020. Due to the increasing cases of covid-19 in the country, a lockdown was imposed in India on March 24, 2020. Since then, the Air Quality Index (AQI) improved significantly. But with the unlock guidelines in place and the steady return to the old ways, the AQI worsened and remained in the ‘severe’ category for a long time. Therefore, it can be said that the relaxations and the improvements in the environment due to the pandemic proved to be short-lived.
It can thus be concluded that initially, the pandemic had a rather positive impact on the environment. But, this impact was a temporary one, although it goes on to show that our planet can still be saved and can be protected if proper care and precautions are taken collectively by the people. It changes what the legislators and the policymakers view as feasible or achievable in terms of the environmental standards and also to identify the factors that were responsible for making the situation worse. Hence, stricter laws can be made to tackle those ingredients in order to make this temporary change into a permanent one.
As far as the current environmental laws are concerned, the impact of covid-19 on such laws can be summarised as follows:
- Leniency in the enforcement of Environmental Laws
When the lockdown was imposed in the country, all the industries and offices were shut down, and work from home schemes took over the normal hustle-bustle. Subsequently, when the unlock process was taking place, the industries were allowed to operate, but only with limited staff. Due to this, some Oil and gas companies received a green light to skip dozens of scheduled tests and inspections critical for ensuring safe operations, such as temporarily halting or delaying tests for leaks or checking on tank seals, flare stacks, emissions monitoring systems, or engine performance, which could raise the risk of explosions. Thus, there was leniency in the enforcement of compliance laws. Moreover, the reduced workforce and travel restrictions may prove to be a hindrance in complying with the proper management, storage, and disposal of chemicals, and solid and hazardous waste required by the environmental laws.
- Changes in baseline exposure rates
The current environmental laws are based on the pre-covid assumptions and the then prevalent environmental standards. This poses a great problem, especially with respect to the studies suggesting baseline exposure rates, like the amount of additional pollution that a person might be safely exposed to. As an example, let us assume that these studies are based on the fact that the majority of the time of a person is spent outdoors, but it is not the case in the current scenario because of the covid related lockdown all across the world. Thus, these baseline rates and studies would need to be revised in order to suit the current situation.
- Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) guidelines for biomedical waste disposal
The pandemic has burdened India’s already heavily burdened waste management system. According to the data shared by the CPCB, India generated about 18,000 tonnes of biomedical waste due to the pandemic in the months of June to September. This rise is attributable to the use of PPE kits, gloves, masks, face shields, etc. by the people to protect themselves from the coronavirus. In light of the above, the CPCB released the “Guidelines for Handling, Treatment, and Disposal of Waste Generated during Treatment/Diagnosis/ Quarantine of COVID-19 Patients”. These guidelines are in addition to the Bio Medical Waste Management (BMWM) Rules, 2016. It provides for the following guidelines:
- For the Covid-19 isolation wards– Use separate coloured bins and proper segregation of waste; use double layered bags for waste disposal; use non-disposal items as far as possible, otherwise use bio-degradable cutlery; maintain separate record of waste generated from isolation wards; etc.
- For sample collection centers and laboratories- treatment of viral media, plastic vials, vacutainers, etc and collect them in red bags.
- For persons operating quarantine centers/camps/home quarantine or home care facilities- general waste generated to be securely collected in bags and handed over to identified municipal solid waste collector; biomedical waste generated to be separately tied and disposed in dedicated bins; etc.
- For Common Biomedical Waste Treatment Facilities (CBWTF)- operators of the CBWTF to ensure that the workers collecting and handling biomedical waste are regularly sanitized; Workers to be provided with adequate PPEs including three layer masks, splash proof aprons/gowns, nitrile gloves, gum boots and safety goggles; use separate vehicle for the collection of covid-19 related waste; etc.
- Duties of SPCBs/PCCs- maintain the record of quarantine facilities/ homes for respective states; ensure proper segregation, collection, and disposal of biomedical waste; allow CBWTF to operate for extra hours; etc.
- Duties of Urban Local Bodies- ensure safe collection and disposal of biomedical and general waste from quarantine facilities and other home care centers; ensure that the general solid waste and biomedical waste is not mixed; provide the bags in which the waste is to be collected to the quarantine centers and facilities; establish common waste deposition centers for receiving/collection of biomedical waste; generate awareness among the people about segregation of general municipal waste and biomedical waste; etc.
- For management of wastewater from quarantine facilities- Operators of ETPs/STPs attached with discharge from Healthcare Facilities and isolation wards should adopt standard operational practices, practice basic hygiene precautions, and wear personal protective equipment (PPE) prescribed for operation of STPs. PPEs should include Goggles, face mask, liquid repellent coveralls, waterproof gloves and Rubber boots; During the period of COVID-19 pandemic, utilization of treated wastewater in utilities within HCFs may be avoided; etc.
- For disposal of used PPE kits– waste masks and gloves in general households to be kept in paper bags for minimum 72 hours prior to disposal; discarded PPEs from general public at commercial establishments, malls, etc to be stored separately for 3 days before disposal; PPEs doffed by healthcare workers accompanying diseased body of COVID-19 patient to crematorium / graveyards should be treated as biomedical waste and disposed as per provisions under SWM Rules, 2016 and BMW Management Rules, 2016; Used masks from visitors to crematorium/ graveyards including crematorium staff should be collected in separate bins and stored for 72 hours prior to disposal as dry general solid waste through local bodies; etc.
- Launch of COVID19BWM App by CPCB to track the biomedical waste
The management and handling of the tonnes of biomedical waste like, PPE kits, gloves, masks, etc by the healthcare professionals and the general public proved to be a challenge for the authorities. There was an increase in the number of Covid-19 cases among the individuals employed in collection and disposal of waste due to the mismanagement in disposal of biomedical waste. Therefore, “in order to monitor COVID-19 related bio-medical waste, CPCB developed COVID-19 waste tracking App named “COVID19BWM”. Both Android Mobile and Web versions of software application were designed for waste generators, CBWTF Operators, SPCBs/PCCs and Urban Local Bodies (ULBs)” Directions were issued under Section 5 of the Environment Protection Act in July, 2020 to all the SPCBs/PCCs to ensure compliance with the CPCB guidelines for effective management of biomedical waste.
The CPCB called for strict compliance with its guidelines and also issued a show cause notice to 106 CBWTFs for not using the COVID19BWM tracking app.
This app would ensure transparency in the operations and data related to the waste management system, and would also provide an opportunity to the people to point out discrepancies and suggest improvements.
- Climate Conference Postponed by the United Nations
A climate conference that was scheduled for November this year at Glasgow, Scotland was delayed amid the coronavirus pandemic. The conference was to address the issue of climate change that has pestered the world for years now. This further delays the urgent need for climate action as the global emissions continue to rise. “The coronavirus has amplified the uncertainty about the world’s resolve to tackle climate change. While the outbreak has appeared to temporarily reduce pollution and damage the oil industry, it has shifted attention away from climate change and is now upending international meetings and negotiations.”
With all the things changing in our surroundings, covid-19 would leave a deep impact on the legal structure of every country. In terms of the environmental laws, it would pose a problem because of the change in the behaviour, morals, and values on the basis of which the laws were made, like the baseline standards that were set according to the conditions prevalent at the time would need revision. Moreover, the positive changes that were observed all around the world in the initial days of the lockdown, should be taken as a motivational factor and the future trajectory of the environmental laws, treaties, and conventions should be decided accordingly in order to make this temporary change into a permanent one.
- Rowell & Bilz, THE PSYCHOLOGY OF ENVIRONMENTAL LAW (NYU Press, forthcoming 2021); Arden Rowell, COVID 19 AND ENVIRONMENTAL LAW (found at: https://poseidon01.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID=953069091068007122065122083104077085042081072032058071029074127099121065096007024018037005034102047046050081082092122118079095055020062006009075095117064003067030098022069049102113113073108113068001082066070096077074112091084098005000075092090065089068&EXT=pdf)