As Covid-19 continues to spread across the globe and shut down most businesses, cities are grappling with what counts as essential. Most national governments around the world have agreed that garbage pickup will continue. In the U.S., recycling is regulated on the local level, and while most municipalities are promising to keep it, some smaller communities have already dropped it.
Two main concerns have arisen when assessing recycling services during a pandemic. First, transmission: The U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases found that coronaviruses can stay on commonly recycled materials for up to a few days, though it lasts longer on plastic and stainless steel than copper and cardboard. Cities also worry about having the manpower to continue services if workers fall ill.
Even in such a dire time, suspending recycling is a mistake, said Ron Gonen, a former deputy commissioner for recycling and sustainability in New York City who is now the chief executive of the Closed Loop Fund, a private equity firm that invests in recycling infrastructure.
“Continuing to recycle is an essential service—especially your cardboard and paper,” Gonen said. Life during a pandemic requires a lot of recycled paper and cardboard, which are remade into toilet paper and e-commerce delivery boxes, both under heavy use right now, he said.
On Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo deemed recycling as essential. But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has only classified broader waste collection services as essential, leading to some confusion over whether recycling qualifies. Many big cities in the U.S. including Atlanta, New York and Salt Lake City say they are continuing business as usual—although they might halt services like clothing recycling and bulk waste pickup. In Fayetteville, Arkansas and Dalton, Georgia, recycling has stopped. Officials there said that virus spread was too big of a risk.
“It was a pretty tough pill to swallow,” said Peter Nierengarten, Fayetteville’s environmental director, “We have an established recycling program and people are passionate about it.”
The city launched four new drop-off locations to go with two that already existed as a way to encourage in recycling to continue. “We are seeing good use of the drop-offs,” Nierengarten said. People who don’t want to travel with their recyclables have two choices: they can store them in their garage until the city starts pickup again, or put them in the regular trash. The city won’t be able to measure the impact on the diversion rate for a long time, he said.
Tacoma, Washington warned its residents that Covid-19 may slow curbside recycling pickup and asked citizens to be patient. Lewis Griffith, the manager of the Tacoma’s solid waste division, said deciding whether recyclables are essential is not an easy call. “If recycling collection is discontinued, then those materials may be disposed of in garbage containers instead, which may lead to overfilled garbage containers, and increased garbage spillage, with undesired environmental and health impacts,” he said.
At Republic Services Inc., the second-largest U.S. waste collector, the company has doubled daily cleanings at its recycling centers in response to the virus—now scrubbing facilities as many as 6 times per day—and has put more distance between employees.
“We use machinery to separate material mechanically, magnetically and optically, but there are still a lot of human touch points inside a recycling facility in terms of manual quality control and sorters pulling contaminants,” said Pete Keller, vice president for recycling and sustainability at Republic Services. The company is also thinking about putting in restrictions on recycling bulky items and waste from landscaping. “It’s more important to pick up the garbage right now than it is an old sofa,” Keller said.
Curbside recycling is continuing in Berkeley, California, but the city has closed the public recycling center, a place where people can collect deposit money for bringing used cans and bottles. Eureka, California, and Ashland County in Oregon did the same. Massachusetts suspended its entire five-cent bottle deposit law, which requires retailers to accept bottles for recycling. The state is concerned that grocery staffers could be infected handling used beverage containers.
In other parts of the world ravaged by the coronavirus, recycling infrastructure has cracked. In China, garbage sorting has never been mandatory for residents, and the coronavirus has made it more difficult for those who voluntarily sort waste because many recycling centers have closed. A lot of them are run by migrant workers, and during the Chinese New Year holiday, many of them left the cities, only to be refused entry when they returned, because of strict virus rules. The few centers that remain open have little business.
Waste disposal rules have become draconian in many parts of Europe. Earlier this month, Italy issued new guidelines for the disposal of waste as the lockdown went nation-wide and toughened in the northern regions. Garbage must be put in two or three resistant bags and gloves, masks and other disposable material must not be recycled, Italy’s health authority said in a statement on March 13.
Infected residents must not sort waste and must use disposable gloves when closing the garbage bags. Pets can’t enter the room where the waste is kept, the authority said. Those who don’t carry the virus can continue recycling as usual and must not recycle paper tissues. Spain’s capital, Madrid, where infections are raising fast and which has one of the world’s highest fatality rates, is enforcing similar rules.
In the U.K., households with possible coronavirus infection must throw personal waste into disposable rubbish bags. These then need to be placed into another bag, which needs to be kept separate from other waste and put aside for 72 hours before being put in the general waste bin. Infected households are banned from recycling.
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