Waste management and COVID-19 – What have we learnt so far?
Mariel Vilella discusses how COVID-19 has shaken up our waste management systems.
The arrival of the waste truck on our street has become one of the most exciting weekly events for my son during the lockdown: a big machine engulfing stuff from bins, bright lights, workers wearing high-vis and waving to us, all in all, a fascinating spectacle to the eyes of a 2-year-old on an otherwise pretty quiet street. Society may be partly in lockdown, but the world of waste is definitely not.
In fact, the waste sector is receiving a major shakeup. The pandemic and subsequent lockdown have caused significant disruption, revealing key points about the strengths and weaknesses of our waste management systems, all important lessons as we move on to build a stronger, more resilient and safer post-COVID world. So far we’ve seen that the waste management sector is key in a modern society, but recycling systems have been put to the test with waste workers and informal recyclers paying the heaviest toll while the industry tries to take advantage of the situation and some new business models in resource efficiency flourish around pointing at the best ways forward.
Let’s reflect on what we have seen so far.
The waste sector is a key sector
The waste sector has been one of the few critical industries required to keep operating during the lockdown. Waste, far from being just an output that needs to be managed at the end of its life, is the result of multiple factors and decisions related to our lifestyle and consumer behaviour, our production model, and a web of policy choices, with the sector providing opportunities to build a post-COVID recovered world with more sustainability and social justice, and less waste and pollution.
Within more economically-developed countries like the UK, household waste production has generally gone up during the lockdown due to the ‘stay-at-home’ economy: the increase of online shopping and takeaway food deliveries has increased disposable packaging. Moreover, suspensions on reusable items have also contributed to an increase in waste.
Assuming that much of the ‘stay-at-home’ economy will remain in place in the mid-term at least, it is important to rethink our systems to reverse this trend and prioritise solutions that prevent waste, even more so in the context of the post-COVID world.
Waste collection and recycling systems have been put to the test
In the UK, many councils have struggled to keep recycling services and instead have burnt a lot of recyclable materials. Similar trends have taken place in other countries in Europe, prompting the European Commission to issue a warning to EU members urging them to make a greater effort to maintain recycling rates. Guidance has been very clear that separate collections of recyclables including plastics are an essential and safe service and should be kept.
In turn, the recycling industry has suffered major losses, and still remains in a situation of uncertainty. Looking at plastics recycling, huge stocks are piling up in the face of a demand shortage, while the oil price slump is making the use of virgin plastic as cheap as ever, which has brought the European plastics recycling industry to close production until further notice.
This raises important questions about the resilience of the recycling system and calls to put measures in place. Government legislation should ensure that recyclable materials do not end up being incinerated, a severe contravention of the Waste Hierarchy and the principles of the EU Circular Economy. Useful policy tools would be the introduction of a tax on incineration, increasing the requirement for recycled content in products, and limiting the production of virgin plastic with bans on single-use plastic products.
Ultimately, improving recycling systems in Europe is not only a European matter – since China’s policy change banned the import of most plastics and other materials for recycling, many European nations and other rich countries like the US or Australia have been exporting their waste to poor countries including Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia, that have been swamped by plastic with severe impacts to local communities.
The pandemic has indeed added a much greater sense of urgency and responsibility to address the recycling systems in rich countries. In fact, investing in processing materials infrastructure in Europe can be a much desired economic and job-creation opportunity for a green post-COVID recovery.
Waste workers and poor communities around the world are taking the heaviest toll
Waste and recycling pickup work is physically demanding and usually exposes workers to occupational hazards – even more so during this pandemic. Collecting and emptying bins in bin trucks exposes waste workers to diseases, broken objects, hazardous or medical waste, dust, smoke and chemical fumes, amongst other factors that can impact their health. It’s been found to be amongst the nine most dangerous jobs in Britain.
In the UK, waste workers have seen their status recognised as key workers, merely meaning their children can continue to attend school. Along with care workers, bus drivers, and security guards, waste workers are exposed to higher risk while being underpaid and under-resourced.
In countries where recycling is done mainly in the informal economy, the lockdown has posed a threat to approximately 15 million informal waste workers who do the critical role of collecting and sorting the waste and recyclables without formal recognition or protections from their municipalities. Given the isolation measures and bans to access waste, waste pickers are suffering a dramatic threat to their livelihoods which has prompted an international call for support and solidarity. The Global Alliance for Waste Pickers has been crowdsourcing global guidance and sharing best practices for waste pickers.
The current situation reveals the historical debt that society owes to waste pickers, who are a critical part of any waste management system, by increasing reuse, recovery and recycling rates for the benefit of nature and society. It’s now more urgent than ever that countries and cities take into account waste pickers’ critical role and include them in their recovery plans for waste management systems, with appropriate protection and safety.
The plastic and incineration industries are fishing in troubled waters
The plastic and incineration industries have seen, in all the confusion and troubled waters, an ideal context to go fishing.
Falsely claiming that the so-called sanitation and safety qualities afforded by single-use plastics outweigh those of reusables, the plastic industry has actively lobbied against single-use plastic bags bans.
In the EU, plastic industry lobbyists asked the European Commission to postpone the implementation of the Single-Use Plastic Directive, which will ban single-use plastic cutlery and plates from July 2021, a call that was rejected. In England, a ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds that was due in April has been postponed, which has been heavily criticized by organisations working on the prevention of plastic pollution.
In fact, current research suggests that the virus can live longer on plastic surfaces than on softer materials. Even the industry’s own studies acknowledge that reusable bags are totally safe, as long as they are washed every once in a while. In this sense, it appears that the industry is exploiting the current catastrophe to aggressively push their corporate agenda—and delay the inevitable transition to a cleaner economy.
In this context of fear and misinformation, many restaurants and takeaway shops are being encouraged to use single-use plastic as a public health measure when in reality the utensils could also be contaminated, giving a false sense of safety which can be counterproductive to prevent the spread of infection.
In terms of the disposal and treatment of waste, the incineration industry has also been adamant to assert their role in destroying the viruses. However, the guidance by the European Commission and World Health Organization (WHO), echoed by environmental health advocates confirms that waste associated with COVID-19 is managed no differently than other potentially infectious waste and there has not been any recommendation to increase incineration of waste.
For disinfection, both WHO and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) have endorsed steam-based or biological stabilisation methods over incineration because of the persistent organic pollutants (POPs) produced by incineration.
In fact, in the context of the pandemic, air pollution has been found to be an important factor in worsening the spread and impact of the disease, which would call for avoiding any activities that can be a source of air pollution, such as incineration.
The reuse movement is rising like a champion
What businesses are thriving during the pandemic while also contributing to a green, safe, resilient recovery? Today, it’s already clear that systems built on sanitary washing are emerging as critical answers to this crisis.
Scientific advice is that washing with water and soap is the most efficient way to make a product safe to handle. Thus the key question is how products are cleaned and handled, who has touched them and how. A system where materials are formally cleaned, following standards and regulations that have been met regardless of the level of contagion threat, allows a restaurant, shop or supermarket to operate without increasing waste and air pollution. Companies like Loop and Dispatch Goods in the US are examples of such systems, which have expanded their market to serve a wider population of people.
Dispatch Goods is an example that also uses reverse vending machines to collect dirty containers to prepare them for sanitation and reuse.
To this end, the need for sustainable, sanitary reuse infrastructure to facilitate single-use packaging waste reduction has become clear amid this crisis. Separate collection at source, introducing more deposit return schemes and compostable alternatives must be implemented to guarantee higher recycling rates. Ultimately, more investment in waste management will be needed to build these technologies and systems, ensuring a more diverse and resilient circular economy.
As we emerge from lockdown, it will be critical to ensure that any environmental policy that has been rolled back gets back on its feet. Moreover, in our efforts to overcome the current crisis, we need now more than ever to build sustainable systems that help us prevent new pandemics or similar environmental and human catastrophes.
Mariel Vilella is Director of Global Strategy, Zero Waste Europe and a Simon Industrial Fellow at Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester. Key recent publications include ‘Zero Waste Circular Economy: A Systemic Game-Changer to Climate Change’.
This article first appeared in Discover Society (June 2020).