Rubbish Is Piling Up and Recycling Has Stalled – Waste Systems Must Adapt

By Keiron Philip Roberts, Research Fellow, University of Portsmouth, Anne Stringfellow, Senior Research Fellow, University of Southampton, and Ian Williams, Professor of Applied Environmental Science, University of Southampton. Originally published at The Conversation

Coronavirus has revealed just how fragile our waste cycle is.Globally, collection services are being reduced because of social distancing, staff absences and concerns about workers’ health and safety. This is affecting the collection, sorting, processing and treatment of wastes as well as markets for materials made from recycling and composts.

In the UK alone, 46% of recycling facilities have reduced or stopped treatment. Domestic glass and some recycling, garden and food waste collection schemes have been cancelled or restricted, with almost all household waste recycling centres closed. This impact is being seen around the world, with the US reporting that 31%of their facilities have been negatively affected. Unless these recyclable materials are stored safely at home, they may end up being sent to end-of-life treatments, such as landfill or incineration.

Changes in lifestyle are adding to this problem. The amount of waste generated in commercial and industrial workplaces has drastically reduced. In contrast, home clear-outs and renovations during the lockdown are creating domestic waste that can’t be disposed of at recycling centres.

In the UK, this has resulted in a 300% increase in reported fly-tipping in rural communities. Items that could have been reused via donation to charity are being disposed of unnecessarily. The UK’s high street charity retail shops – which generate around £270 million annually for good causes – now find their future under threat at a time when demand for their services is highest.

Rubbish left by the road, Northfleet, Kent. Ian West/PA Wire/PA Images

Industries that rely heavily on recycled materials are therefore the ones feeling the most pressure in terms of getting hold of resources. The US plastic recycling industry has asked congress for a US$1 billion (£800 million) bailout “to meet the demands of this crisis”. There are warnings for cardboard shortages for future packaging as we produce and recycle less at work, and sharp increases in online shopping brings more card and paper into our homes.

Meanwhile, dramatic reductions in wood waste recycling (to nearly 10% of capacity) thanks to construction slowing, and household recycling centres closing, is having knock on effects on biomass energy generation. The manufacture of cars has reduced globally, reducing the demand for recycled steel and aluminium. Medical waste, which requires specialist collection and treatment, is increasing rapidly.

When you add the panic-bought £1.9 billion of groceries to this – and that’s just a UK figure – some of which went straight into the bin, it’s clear that COVID-19 is having a massive impact on waste management and negatively affecting the environment.

Linear or Circular?

This is a problem, but not an insurmountable one. Economies will largely be able to deal with this disruption to the waste cycle because they are, for the most part, still largely based on a linear economy, in which virgin resources are extracted when needed to make goods and disposed at the end of their lives.

But many countries are now in the process of transitioning to a future management system based on the “circular economy”, where the aim is to reuse and return all waste material to manufacturers as a resource. Some countries, and sectors, are further ahead than others in this process, and have managed to embed recovery and return into their design, such as deposit return schemes for bottles. But this is a gradual transition and at present the world economy is still more linear than circular.

Lockdown has undoubtedly exposed problems with the circular economy. But this by no means implies that we should stick to a linear economy. A circular economy is certainly what we should aim towards, being both environmentally sustainable and economical. Circularity reduces the need to extract new resources, decreases the environmental impacts associated with mining, lowers costs and helps us to meet climate and environment targets.

But the system depends on resources being recovered from waste to match demand as production uses less virgin material. And as the COVID-19 pandemic is demonstrating, such systems can quickly buckle under pressure.

In a circular economy, if the supply of recovered materials is disrupted – by a global pandemic for example – stark impacts on the material supply chain result. Long-term disruptions could permanently remove several months’ worth of precious resources from the cycle, requiring large-scale industrial extraction to be restarted. In a fully circular economy, these extraction methods may no longer exist, or be limited in size. And the reduction in availability of recycled materials would reduce the rate at which the economy would recover through material supply issues.

It is therefore clearer than ever that these supply chain issues need to be addressed if the circular economy is to become a success.

Recycling systems have quickly buckled under the pressure. John Walton/PA Wire/PA Images

Planning for Shocks

To create a successful circular economy, our current waste management system will need to evolve to be resilient to the impacts of these rare, extreme global events.

As governments begin to rebuild and gradually recover from the economic shocksimpacting them, action must be taken to ensure that supply chains and markets for recyclable materials are diverse and robust.

To achieve the benefits of a full circular economy, many systems need to be developed so that weaknesses in one are complemented by the strengths of another. These systems will need to take full advantage of waste resources in the community through so-called “urban mines”, adding value to waste, while embedding resilience to future pandemics.

Reducing single-use packaging, introducing more deposit return schemes and compostable alternatives, and applying novel systems to enable better outcomes would keep resources in the system for longer. Other options could include alternative ways to reuse delivery packaging in a safe, hygienic way rather than recycling to reduce dependence on cardboard and plastic.

It is crucial to ensure that waste sector staff are protected and recovered materials are uncontaminated and safe to use in supply chains. Improvements in automated sorting are needed to reduce manual sorting of wastes and allow sites to continue working in the event of staff absences.

Ultimately, all of these areas will be invested in as the value of recycled resources increases. We should use the economic stimulus packages that will come after this pandemic to invest in these technologies and systems, to build a more diverse and resilient circular economy.

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  1. Rod

    I had a thought.
    A closed, and controlled micro-economy could be used to pilot and fast track a demonstrator project to high light best practices.

    What entity in the US could do that without reinventing another wheel?

    What does the Army have planned?

    In addition to continued regulatory compliance guidance for solid waste, USAEC assists installations participating in the Net Zero sustainability initiative. The goal is for installations to reduce, reuse, and recover waste streams so that there is minimal landfill disposal. The Net Zero program also addresses sustainable management of energy and water. There will be five pilot Net Zero installations in each category and one in all three by 2020, and the goal is to have 25 Net Zero installations by 2030


    What is it?

    The Integrated Solid Waste Management (ISWM) concept was established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the early 1990s to expand existing solid waste management initiatives. Instead of focusing only on the disposal of solid waste, ISWM includes preventing waste, minimizing the initial generation of materials through source reduction, reusing and recycling, and composting to reduce the volume of materials being sent to landfills or incineration.

    the US Army has it here:

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      that’s essentially what i try to do around here.
      I’m the garbage man for this place…so i have to store it.
      Compost/chicken bucket diverts things that might be of interest to raccoons and possums(and feeds the soil).
      “bathroom trash” gets used to start fires in woodstoves in winter, and to start burn barrels in early spring, come a late hard freeze….otherwise buried in the large holes where trees go(along with a diaper or two to help the tree get established first summer)
      cardboard from mom’s pathological amazon obsession is turned into weed control under compost, or sheet mulch in new beds, or burned up in entertainment campfires(all that glossy cardboard goes to landfill…recycling doesn’t want it either)
      with recycling place still closed due to covid…and landfill just opened today after 2 weeks, I’ve started a further diversion program for glass and aluminum(beer related)—the latter because i expect can collecting for beer money to be a thing, again.
      I, of course, have little say in how things are packaged.

      we’ve also got the composting toilet…not a drop of water is wasted on that end, save for rinsing the barrels, which just feeds the trees in that spot any way.
      graywater is directed hither and yon to various trees and specimen plants and a (still in progress) built wetland(i have a thing for cattails).
      for graywater, attention must be paid to soap/detergent: sodium hydroxide=bad, potassium hydroxide=good.
      the difference between our waste footprint and my mother’s next door is pretty stark…if it was just us 4(5 with cousin), i’d only do a dump run every 3 months or more….instead of the current monthly excursion.but it’s difficult to get my mom and stepdad to change such habits.

      and, of course, and as i’ve relayed many times, pound for pound, i come out of that landfill with more than i take in(metal pile, city compost, telephone poles, etc)
      the germ for all of this came from basic permaculture principals, and reading about that EPA program in SciAm or something, years ago.

  2. Wukchumni

    That photo in Northfleet with trash strewn all about, is my fear if trash pickup service goes awry here. Plan B would be to haul it 50 miles away to the dump in Visalia-if that is still open.

    But that’s me and our neighbors, what about lazy litterers?

    Having done roadside trash pickup for many years, all it takes is for somebody else to have thrown trash out of a car in a given spot just off the highway, and it’s as if its presence gives other drivers license to do the same. An interesting deal, i’ve seen it play out like that often.

  3. chuck roast

    “What if we never owned our technologies, we simply licensed them from the manufacturers?” Now that is something worth considering. The manufacturer then must take responsibility for the entire life cycle of the product, and each product contains a life-cycle quotient. A tax would be placed on the product depending on the quotient. A social cost as a derivative of the product. Trash is, after all a negative externality.

    If we are redefining property rights, then the Coaseian bargain becomes less opaque. We would get something that approximates a Pareto efficient outcome. Now that would be a pleasure to see after learning that nonsense 50 years ago. Actual theory and practice…Marginalism meets Socialism. Alas, I’ll be dead before something that delicious would ever happen.

  4. The Rev Kev

    Something tells me that going forward, that systems like rubbish collection will have to be designed with such interruptions built into its design. The interruptions may be future pandemics, climate change, financial crisis, fuel shortages, etc. but whatever they will be, that flexibility will have to be built into the system that replaces the present one.

  5. DHG

    Where I am we have burn barrels for trash if the pickup doesnt come, of course metals are diff but there is a metals plant not too far out of town who takes them

  6. Susan the other

    It is reasonable to imagine that the recycling industry will come to match the manufacturing industry in size. Once it gets established. Until then, several years in the future, we have 50 years of trash to mitigate so the recycling and clean-up logically should be much, much bigger than yearly world manufacturing. It’s a sleeping giant. Somebody please tell uncle Warren.

  7. Monte McKenzie

    we would have had a recession soon in any event without Q19!
    It would have been deeper than usual , but not what we now face, Trumps sancrtoins covering billions of trade dollars are unpresidented as 1/3rd of the worlds peoples are now suffering from not being able to import necessary products!
    then the pandemic! Killing world trade that is a system that runs on scheduling to the minute every activity and a disruption like the pandemic coupled with the world wide glut of oil gas and coal products jamming the startup with every possible ship loaded and floating at anchor! even importers are not using up what is stored in their tanks as they only buy the cheapest product from the most desprite seller! “NOT SANCTIONED”!
    The fossil fuel industry will never recover even by 6-/22 !
    50% or more of all world trade will never recover as people fin economic workarounds to ways to get by without products they formerly used !
    Most never go back to old supply chains even when they can!

  8. Left in Wisconsin

    According to our local recycling guru, all the recycling markets with the exception of cardboard have collapsed. The mainstream grocery stores are no longer allowing people to bring their own bags and, maybe it’s just me but, it seems like store management is thrilled to go back to the old ways. More car travel, less public transit. Companies using financial distress to offload responsibility. I think this historical episode is going to be a huge setback to sustainable living.

  9. Moshe Braner

    “Improvements in automated sorting are needed to reduce manual sorting of wastes and allow sites to continue working in the event of staff absences.”
    – how about people sorting their recycling in advance of taking it to wherever? I’ve felt insulted since the solid waste system around here has gone to “zero sort”, all-in-one-bin, magical trust in the mechanical sorting robots (aided by humans working dangerously).

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