Coronavirus Kayoes U.S. Recycling

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 [Jerri-Lynn here: 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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  1. jackiebass

    Seems like a lot a collateral damage happening. Collecting garbage is one of them. The most critical I see happening will be in the food industry. Empty shelfs like we now have will be a minor problem compared to future problems. What happens when those that provide our food get sick? Truck drivers that deliver as well as people working grocery stores. If you don’t hav enough people to stock or check out it can quickly become a crises. You only need a sick person to go into a store and plant the seeds for this illness. Quickly many will get sick because the virus is very contagious. That will slow down operations or even prevent the store from functioning. When this happens the buying process will slow down drastically. Stores , to avoid crowding, will have to limit the number of people in the store at one time. Will they have people at the entrance ? Perhaps people will be assigned different days to shop so everyone doesn’t come at the same time? Then you have future food supplies. Much of it is produced in Ca and picked and processed by migrant workers. Many are illegal. Food being perishable need to be picked and processed at a certain time. If it isn’t it will rot in the fields. I hate to be pessimistic but the future look even worse than it now is. I’m not convinced our present government is planning for the future. It looks like they are winging it from one day to the next.

  2. Louis Fyne

    — there is a shortage of PPE to protect health care workers. —-

    sidenote: shortage of nitrile and latex gloves because 75% of the world’s production comes from Malaysia and they banned glove exports for their own domestic use.

  3. Brooklin Bridge

    For those that can, separating compostables will help. There are a lot of instructions on the web for making and operating compost containers. When I was a kid, we just dug a hole in the ground and put food only scraps there. New holes in the same area often. Boy that area got green over time. But it was a farm and we had space. I hesitate to discuss “burnables” as that is a can of worms. Plastic mostly, but really anything that can’t be easily disposed of, is going to become a nightmare if waste facilities shut down. And those in cities… Man. I remember Naples back in the 70’s during an extended garbage strike. Not the sort of thing you forget.

    On the other hand, que faire in the US? We are witnessing the greatest case of corruption of political and corporate entities the world has ever seen right before our eyes. We don’t even have protection for our medical staff, never mind a care in the world for lowly garbage collectors, unless they do it themselves; meantime our politicians are off bragging about how the elderly (not the elderly politicians of course) are happy to take it on the chin and die horribly, having cement poured down their lungs, so the Dow, particularly the mortuary and pharmaceutical sector, can soar to new heights. And make no mistake, an accurate count of the number of people who are fine with all that, who still believe in anything Trump does or says, would make one hang their head and weep, until they looked over at wax figure Joe staring at a wall, and then they would just loose it.

    1. Susan the other

      precisely BB. and thanks JLS, this is a reality topic. My recycling guy is smart. He picks up every 6 months – he’s most interested in dry, clean cardboard which he recycles in to insulation; he takes wine bottles in volume to the recycling center where they sometimes have to pay someone to pick up the mega-dumpster. He takes soft plastic (clean); hard plastic/coded; glass jars and tin cans. He takes office/magazine paper too but that is usually dumped on a 5-year basis (for us – spring cleaning). Yesterday the local recycling center announced shorter hours and asked for donations because the usual cardboard pickup has stopped for now. I’m anticipating a total stop. So now I’m glad I’m so compulsive – I set aside a full bay in the garage (2-car now one) and I can store recycling, all organized, for about 18 months. First time I’ve ever been happy to be a total head-banging compulsive. So I’d think they could do a requirement for pickup/sorting like: Please store your recyclables for at least 2 weeks to ensure that surface virus is no longer contagious. Or something like that. The last person I want to contaminate if I’ve had corona and don’t even know it is my recycling guy. I really like him and his attitude.

  4. Joe Well

    Here in Massachusetts, the Republican governor suspended bottle and can redemption requirements for retail stores, claiming that these businesses had to dedicate themselves to providing essential food and beverages.

    Glass recycling was already in trouble in New England once the only glass recycling plant closed.

    The retailers and the beverage industry had been lobbying to do away with the redemption requirement for a long time already, and I wonder if this won’t be their opening to achieve that goal.

    Can this be considered small-scale disaster capitalism?

  5. Shiloh1

    I never understood having a huge truck going up and down the street collecting bags of grass clippings and leaves. Same streets where Teslas and Prius roam, at least around here.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Well, if the grass clippings and leaves were all turned into biochar for re-giving back to any of the neighborhoodies who want it, it would all be for not-quite naught.

  6. LawnDart

    Dirty MRFs are already nasty, nasty places and the workers on the sort lines already deal with hazards like hypodermic needles, chemicals, poo-fill diapers and rats daily. These workers usually wear heavy rubber gloves (not nitrile– those wouldn’t last a hot minute on the line), masks and face shields. Yeah, masks can now be a problem to obtain, but not so much the rest. Fortunately, waste material almost never coughs on you, especially since the babies and unwanted pets disposed of in trash cans are usually already suffocated, pre-compacted and dead.

    Landfill space is expensive. If it costs less to remove potentially recyclable materials from waste than to burn or bury them then residential recycling will continue. Workers who sort this material are usually very inexpensive ($8-10hr wage, little or no benefits), except for when they do something incredibly stupid and wreck equipment or get someone maimed or killed. But overall, especially due to a lack of national strategies and policies, residential recycling remains a fragmented clusterfrack: like real estate, much depends on local market conditions.

    A lot of “recycled” material consists of scrap from manufacturers– left over cuttings, defective product, etc. This is usually very “clean” material that can be quickly reprocessed and sold for reuse. The market for these products ride the tides of the manufacturing industry in general, so as the economy goes into the tank, recyclers who cater to these markets do follow.

    An anecdote from the front lines: last week I had to cut just short of the final commissioning of a machine due to a lack of consistent materials available for bug-out, fully automated testing and fine-tuning. But all that means is that a machine operator will keep their job for a bit longer, at least until I can return and automate it away. The company that had purchased the unit has very recently seen a massive drop-off in metals delivered, to include the residual scrap by manufacturers as well as that which could usually be collected by the scavengers who cruse alleyways and job sites in their pickups.

    A lot of recycling companies will continue to process whatever materials that they can get their hands on, and they will store these while waiting for an opportunity to unload at the right price. The big fish will keep eating the little fish, so it’s good time to keep an eye on WM: their stock is near 52-week lows and I think that it will be a steal once the market bottoms out (if there’s still such a thing as civil society that remains after this coronavirus has run its course).

    1. Susan the other

      It would be better if the stuff going into land fills – the weekly curbside pickup stuff – were safely compostable stuff. Separately, maybe the next day, stuff to be incinerated could be set out – stuff that would contaminate the compost.

  7. HotFlash

    City of Toronto organic collection as of this week refuses human-produced organic waste (diapers, tissues) although they are still accepting food scraps and kitty litter. Organic waste is composted, some in bio-methane facilities. Now diapers, tissues and the like are to be bagged and placed in garbage collection bins, thence to the landfill.

  8. Upstater

    Our “resource recovery agency” has operated an incinerator for 30 years. When it was approved, recycling was mandated. Residental recycling reached 40%. The incinerator needed more stuff to burn, so it began accepting trash from neighboring counties.

    Covanta is the operator, they negotiated a sweetheart deal with the county that only a drunk or a Biden would have accepted.

    Then we began “single stream” recycling. Once China stopped accepting contaminated recycle material, the downward spiral began.

    Turns out half the weight is glass, which was NEVER reused for making glass. First it was ground up for pavement, now it it crushed and landfilled. (My first job was sorting beverage bottles for reuse at a supermarket).

    With COVID there will be less trash and the incinerator needs more fuel. Everything will go up the stack.

    There is no reason for optimism with capitalism.

    Thank you, JLS.

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