Coronavirus outbreak & environmental safety – What do we see & what can we do?

“Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are in fact plans to protect man.” —Stewart Udall First of all, let us most sincerely, thank for all the warm and positive responses and feedback on our previous coronavirus-blog...

“Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are in fact plans to protect man.” —Stewart Udall

First of all, let us most sincerely, thank for all the warm and positive responses and feedback on our previous coronavirus-blog from our colleges and friends! Thank you for your encouragement and warm thoughts!

The fight against the coronavirus is ongoing, engaging massive resources, filled with struggle and sorrow, but also a gradual relief and cautious hopefulness, every day and everywhere in China.  While the greatest and the most urgent attention has been focusing on the battle to save lives and preventing virus transmission, another vital battle is also being carried out in the background, i.e. to safeguard environmental safety as a preventive measure against ongoing and future virus transmission. The Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE), as the key member of the” Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism” is taking the lead to tackle this daunting task, mobilising resources, nationally, regionally and locally, to ensure a timely and efficient implementation.

At the same time, this ongoing public health crisis is also a wake-up call for some deep and forward-looking reflections on human-nature relationship and its impact of the health of people, nature and environment. What can we learn from this public health crisis and what can we do to prevent it in the future? It is our great pleasure to have our colleagues from the Swedish Environmental Research Institute (IVL) Beijing office, Si Gao, Rui Wang and Kai Yang with us to share IVLs thoughts and actions right now and in the future.

Safe management of medical waste and wastewater

Many cities in China already face challenges with safe and environment-friendly disposal of household waste. On top of this, the wide usage of single use surgical masks and other protective and treatment equipment used in medical facilities create great amounts of waste that need to be handled in a safe manner. As mismanagement of hospital waste and wastewater dispatches from hospitals could become a further source of infection, it is given a lot of attention in China. The Minister for Ecology and Environment, Li Ganjie, has attached the greatest importance to medical waste management and medical wastewater treatment, which is now included in the supervision by the MEE to ensure effective actions at the local level.

As of February 11, Wuhan city has doubled its capacity to handle medical waste to over 100 ton per day and the whole province of Hubei has a capacity to handle around 370 tons of medical waste a day. For China as a whole, 258 local treatment stations in 31 provinces are making great efforts to achieve “same day in and same day clean”. 

At the technical level, medical waste is particularly difficult to handle as it is a mix of both wet and dry waste, is highly contagious and therefore cannot be treated or separated before the incineration. The SARS epidemic in 2003 was a turning point for medical waste management in China and facilities for safe management of medical waste has increased since then. A further expansion, in terms of both treatment capacity and technology level, has also taken place in the recent years, which turns to be extremely helpful in the current extreme situation. For instance, a Chinese company in Wuhan uses a gasification technique that is said to ensure safe incineration with no odorous smoke or wastewater. The incineration technique has taken scientists from the Chinese Academy of Engineering and Hunan University of Humanities, Science and Technology 13 years to develop with investments over 20 million RMB. This incineration company installed three furnaces to help manage the waste from the new hospitals in Wuhan. However, it is estimated that around 30 more such new furnaces will be needed to take care of the medical wastes from Wuhan before the epidemic is under control. 

Online monitoring of air and water quality

It is also critical that the MEE monitors the state of the environment closely and makes timely assessment on potential impact that an eventual environmental accident or a secondary disaster would have on the environment. For instance, a great volume of disinfectants is being used, which creates risks of leaks into the environment and nature. Also, the two new and large hospitals being built with record speed in Wuhan have very high requirements on wastewater discharge. The MEE relies on a network of online monitoring to keep track of the air and water quality.

Local officers are taking the samples of environment data.
Local officers are taking the samples of environment data.
Online monitoring of air quality (darker the color, worse the air quality).
Online monitoring of ground water quality (higher the number, poorer the water quality).

Prohibiting trade with wild animals

The source of the Covid-19, as the case with the SARS epidemic in 2003, is thought to be closely related to wildlife. Wild animals are sometimes seen as delicacies and are therefore in demand. To limit further spreading of the virus, the Chinese government imposed a ban on selling wild animals starting from January 26 until the virus has disappeared in the whole of China. Many voices have also been heard arguing for a total ban on wildlife trading and to impose stricter regulations and means of supervision. On the 10th of February, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress announced plans to amend the Law of Wild Animal Protection and strengthen enforcement and supervision to combat illegal trade in wild animals and eliminate excessive hunting and indiscriminate consumption of wild animals. However, the specific details are not available yet and it will be an important legislative process to follow in the near future. 

IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute in action

As the leading Swedish research institute in the environment field and with its long (more than 20-years) presence in China, IVL has been supporting many Swedish organisations and companies in their cooperation with China.

In the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, the IVL China team in Beijing sees that future cooperation between China and Sweden related to health, environment and nature needs to be, and can be, strengthened. For instance, today most of the wastewater treatment plants around world, incl. China, have not taken pharmaceutical residues into consideration. Faced by large public health crises and in a long-term perspective, pharmaceutical residues in wastewater treatment will need to become a focus. In 2019, IVL implemented its first project to treat pharmaceutical residue in wastewater in a large-scale wastewater treatment plant in Sweden. This experience will be both highly relevant and valuable for the future international cooperation with China as well as other countries.

Hand-in-hand with innovation and technical solutions, awareness-raising and education are equally important and well-needed. And there are so many things and actions that we can do immediately. For instance, the IVL China team has been very active in the field of food waste through the Wechat platform (SAVE 12.3). During the current home quarantine in China, the need for avoiding and reducing food waste has increased, not only for environment and climate – but also because of practical difficulties, when transport and supply of food and household waste treatment are limited. At the same, the frequency and volume of food consumption tend to increase as people are staying and working at home. As an immediate action, IVL has put forward a video on “No food waste during home quarantine” to help. Looking ahead, IVL is planning for a food education campaign on “healthy, sustainable and no-wildlife food consumption“ for school children and youth.  

Image of “No food waste during home quarantine” (IVL China)

To conclude, the on-going coronavirus outbreak is a large-scale battle for saving lives, but also a large-scale fight for protecting the environment. New problems and challenges are emerging every day when the virus is still spreading and when safeguarding environmental protection in these extreme and special circumstances are becoming more and more urgent and demanding.  As a bright side in the darkness, the situation and challenges should, and will, make us more conscious, more informed and more proactive to see our life and the world – through the lens of health of and harmony with the environment and nature. 

Nannan Lundin, Matilde Eng, Si Gao, Rui Wang and Kai Yang