Waste Management During Covid-19

I thought it would be useful for some to do an update on waste management during covid-19 – this is more for my contacts out with the sector rather than all the waste guys at the sharp end (who know this all already!!). Most people’s understanding of waste management is that once a week the “magic bin fairy” comes along and we get an empty bin back! They don’t understand the size and scale of the industry in place to collect and safely manage waste! 

So many of you will have noticed that waste workers are classified as essential workers during this crisis. This is because effective waste management is viewed as an essential service to protect public health. In the UK this goes back a long way, to the Great Plague of London. This lasted from 1665 to 1666, and was the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to occur in the UK. It was largely transmitted through the bite of an infected rat flea. The underlying cause was the unsanitary conditions within London at that time, with sewage flowing down the streets and little or no functional waste management system, which allowed the rat population to explode!

This outbreak resulted in the birth of the UK of the public health, sewage system and waste management sector we now take for granted today, in fact many of the countries sewers are still from this era! It is only recently that waste management has focussed on recycling and environmental issues, but the fundamental purpose of household waste collection is to protect public health!

So, during this crisis what issues are coming up:

  • The obvious one, is councils are struggling for staff, as staff take ill or have to self-isolate so the number of staff are already reduced
  • Councils are grappling with how they continue to offer collections while still maintaining 2m separation for staff. A variety of methods are being used from single crew of vehicles, max. of two staff in vehicle with staff following behind in a van etc. All methods currently used will be slower than usual methods putting further pressure on resources
  • Lack of manpower and changes to work will put more work on existing crews – lifting bins is hard physical work and they will need rest periods soon, further reducing staff numbers
  • Very shortly you will see councils either focussing on residual and food waste collections only or collecting all waste at the same time. The reality is that waste going to landfill / incineration will increase and recycling levels will decrease – but during this period the overriding priority is public health!!
  • Commercial waste collections have largely dried up so potentially councils can contract in vehicles, drivers and crews to supplement their depleted resources
  • As everyone is now largely at home the quantity of waste is liable to increase, however this may be balanced by the reduced opportunity to go out and buy things.
  • There is already anecdotal information that food waste has increased drastically – is this the panic buying of food going bad and needing to then throw it out?
  • Household Waste Recycling Centre sites are largely shut across the country. This was primarily to free up staff and resources but also important to close down unnecessary travel and journeys. Councils which have closed sites have come under a lot of criticism for closing from the public but can they really call a trip to the HWRC site an essential journey. In all reality the waste they were desperate to get rid of had been sitting in their shed/ loft / house etc for years!! Councils have said HWRC sites last weekend were busier than on a Bank holiday, with whole families turning up to the site and they felt they had to shut to protect the public!

During this crisis it is essential that waste collections continue and also essential that the landfill sites and incinerators continue to operate, and the vast majority of councils and private companies are committed to doing so. This does present its own challenges as these are often complex sites with permits or licences to allow them to operate. To comply with the permit these sites need to complete certain monitoring activities. This involves going to these sites to sample and test – but this needs a supply chain of contractors, laboratories etc – are all these organisations also deemed to be essential or not! Clear government guidance is required!

In an ideal world it would be great if there was a consistent approach to what collections councils should focus on to help the public cope, however the reality is local government is being left to cope as best they can:

  • Prioritise residual waste and food waste to free up resources and focus on the service which poses the biggest risk to public health
  • All other services, only deliver when they have sufficient resources – does it really matter if you have a bin of cardboard or mixed recyclate sitting in your garden for a few months?
  • Minimise volume – most bins are not full; they have just been packed poorly. Flat pack and squash everything and the space in bins will last much longer
  • The other one is don’t waste food – spend your free time to bake and use up old food, plenty of ideas on line

In the short term this crisis will result in a dip in recycling, but I am hopefully it will result in people living much more sustainably – buying less, discarding less and being much more aware of their contribution to the environment. It is only once something stops that you realise how important it is!

What do you think, will it make us more sustainable in the long term or will we revert to our old ways of only caring that the bin gets emptied?

Alasdair Meldrum

27/03/20