Coronavirus Kayoes U.S. Recycling

Coronavirus Kayoes U.S. Recycling 1

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Coronavirus has kayoed many remaining U.S. recycling programs, as well as disrupted the broader waste management efforts of many municipalities.

Cities and states must continue to collect their garbage – otherwise, coronavirus will be only one of the public health threats with which they must grapple.

As Waste Dive reports in How coronavirus is disrupting US waste and recycling:

Worker safety resources are available from OSHA, SWANA, NWRA and ISRI. Service providers are changing guidelines, in many cases only collecting material from carts and suspending collection for bulky waste or yard waste. Curbside recycling programs have been suspended in more than a dozen municipalities, with many more drop-off sites closed. Policies around container redemption programs and carryout bags have also been affected in multiple states.

Now, as regular readers know, the status of many U.S. recycling programs had been scaled back or suspended after China stopped accepting waste imports. The dirty little secret: those “recycling” programs weren’t in fact recycling programs at all, but the dumping of US recyclables onto the Chinese, to process as they saw fit. A lively global trade in recyclables continued for a while after the Chinese move, until other countries that had stepped up to accept waste for a fee realized that foreign garbage overwhelmed their domestic waste management capacity. Some of them then started to ship it back to its origin (see Plastics Watch: China to Ban Single-Use Plastics, Malaysia Rejects Waste Shipments).

Health and Safety Risks for Waste and Recycling Workers

Waste Dive discussed some of the key risks coronavirus poses for sanitation workers in Coronavirus poses multiple safety risks for waste and recycling workers.  The state of knowledge about the novel coronavirus is far from comprehensive:

As the situation evolves rapidly, workplaces have been trying to keep up with new information about how the disease can spread. While consensus remains that respiratory transmission is the highest and most common risk, new research began circulating last week that also raised ongoing concerns about surface transmission.

The findings – published by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and multiple universities – indicates COVID-19 can live on materials such as cardboard and plastic, in some cases for as many as three days. This has prompted service providers throughout the country to alter their collection policies with some saying they won’t collect any loose items outside of bags or carts, or won’t collect recycling at all.


Current guidance from the CDC and U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says no additional precautions are needed for handling solid waste that might be infected beyond normal personal protective equipment (PPE) used for medical waste. OSHA did not share a response to the NIAID findings, or other related questions, as of publication [Emphasis added.].

Now, there is a shortage of PPE to protect health care workers. Some countries have been prudent and have stockpiled sufficient PPE, but many haven’t, including the US and the UK,  where as the Guardian reports, Doctors threaten to quit NHS over shortage of protective kit.  So if doctors can’t get their hands on enough protective kit, what do you think are the chances that sanitation workers are able to?

At the moment, the regular kit sanitation workers use to protect themselves – gloves and safety glasses – has been deemed sufficient to protect them from coronavirus. Is it?

Over to the Waste Dive multiple safety risks article:

Meanwhile, multiple operators have raised questions about interacting with the disease when handling curbside material and possibly even acting to spread it among fellow employees, or along the route.

One group that has raised this question is the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The union sent letters to CEOs of major companies on Monday citing this concern, along with many other questions about PPE and safety. Nearly half of the 32,000 waste workers it represents are employed by Waste Management, Republic Services or Waste Connections.

“The Covid-19 pandemic poses a serious and unique risk to the 6,000 Teamsters employed by Waste Management. Over the course of each workday, our members visit thousands of homes, businesses, schools and hospitals,” said Chuck Stiles, director of the union’s waste and recycling division, in one letter.

Asked more generally about safety precautions it has taken to protect workers against COVID-19 (as well as any response to the Teamsters letter) Waste Management said it was working to respond to inquiries from multiple unions “as soon as possible.”

To the question of possible surface transmission, spokesperson Janette Micelli wrote on Wednesday that “waste handling is not a disease pathway and has not been identified as needing any special precaution by the [World Health Organization] or CDC.”

Hmmm. That’s the official position on the possibility of surface transmission on the collection side.

What about Recycling?

Yet sanitation workers do more than merely collect waste. Recycling either requires or raises the possibility of extensive contact among sanitation workers, who sort and process potential recyclables. What about their risk of contracting coronavirus?

Some companies have taken at least some steps to protect their workers.

Again, according to the Waste Dive multiple safety risks article:

Waste Management also reported changes at its [municipal recycling facilities] MRFs, something other companies have yet to discuss publicly.

“Specifically for MRF’s, we have changed all operations to social distancing, which includes repositioning of sorters, staggering breaks, and huddles. Where distancing is not possible, we are creating temporary barriers between sorting stations as long as the barriers do not create a safety issue,” said Micelli.

In another example of social distancing affecting operations, California-based Recology recently posted a notice from CEO Michael Sangiacomo that collection shifts have been staggered to reduce headcount and some work will now be happening overnight. New York’s Department of Sanitation has also started its shifts earlier to avoid crowds, along with other heightened precautions, according to a story by Politico. The Southeast Recycling Development Council has also posted reported collection changes in certain states due to social distance requirements.

Republic Services declined to share any specific information about different safety precautions. An unidentified spokesperson told Waste Dive on Wednesday the company was taking this issue “very seriously” and regularly “consulting with public health experts and other advisors” to ensure safety. “The COVID-19 situation is evolving rapidly, and we are confident that we have the right business continuity plans in place to quickly respond to circumstances that may impact our business,” they said.

Some municipalities haven’t waited to suspend their recycling programs, as they rely on prison labor, according to Waste Dive, Municipalities suspend recycling due to coronavirus impact on prison labor, broader safety concerns. Last week, I posted an interview with prison expert Michele Deitch on the dire state of preparation prison spread of coronavirus,  Prisons and the COVID-19 Pandemic: What Must Be Done NOW to Prevent Catastrophe. Alas, some jails, such as New York’s Rikers Island, have already seen outbreaks, according to the Wall Street Journal, Coronavirus Spreads Among Rikers Inmates, Staff.

So I suppose we should welcome the suspension of recycling, because authorities are otherwise way behind the curve in their efforts to curb coronavirus outbreaks in correctional institutions.

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