waste collection

Known Unknowns: waste collection through the pandemic

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic municipal waste collection operators throughout Europe and the US had to adapt.

European municipalities experienced somewhat similar developments in municipal waste collection during the Covid-19 pandemic. While at the beginning of the pandemic, the waste management companies wondered about the unknowns with potentially hazardous medical waste, one more enduring challenge was providing continuous pick-up service with less manpower, due to social distancing requirements, as well as shifts in household and commercial waste quantities with lockdown.

The French network of towns and regions, Association des Cites et Regions pour la gestion durable des Ressources, ran a survey to the effects of Covid-19 on municipal waste management.  It concluded that during the early part of the pandemic, municipal waste generation on a whole declined: while household waste generation increased, it did not make up for the loss of commercial waste generated. French business group CITEO noted that other challenges were lower streams of recyclables into recycling facilities at the very beginning of lockdown, resulting lower revenue for these processing facilities.

Data provided by Eastern Waste Management Office in Ireland sums up that during the first lockdown phases of the pandemic, construction and demolition waste dropped by 70%, commercial waste generation by 50% while household waste generation rose by 21%, with residual waste generation increasing most.

While Austrian municipal waste collection provider, Saubermacher, summarizes for the period from the beginning of the pandemic to today experiencing stagnating residual household waste, there were increases in organic waste (+5%), metal packaging (+10%), and glas (+3%). Construction waste remained constant. Commercial waste production declined on average by 20-30% with large regional differences, restaurant waste declined by 40%. Saubermacher had not many adjustments to make on waste collection routes or frequency, but there was a surge of bulky item drop-off at the end of the first lockdown which has since tapered off. 

With the easing (more or less) out of the pandemic, municipalities are still bracing for having to adapt to waste generation fluctuations. One of the big surges is a recent uptick in construction in homes and infrastructure– some of it pent up from the lockdown. This is creating not only more construction and demolition waste, but is increasing the number of households to service for waste collection, such as in the UK for example.

More recently, in the US and in the UK there has been a serious shortfall of drivers for waste pick-up. The UK Road Haulage Association estimates the driver shortage to be at 70,000. RHA chief executive Richard Burnett said: “The upturn in the economy since Covid-19 is increasing demand across supply chains and the reopening of non-essential retail outlets and parts of the hospitality sector is making the situation even worse. The pandemic also resulted in the loss of about 12 months of driver training and testing.”

This is affecting waste collection in municipalities accross the country; Somerset Waste Partnership in the UK has been present in the media on this issue, explaining the shortage of drivers due to Brexit has been made worse with the pandemic while also waste loads increased by up to 20% during lockdown. Backlogs and commercial re- opening is expected to not ease the situation.

In the US, the situation is similar: “The COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more difficult for some companies and agencies to attract and retain collection workers, which is causing service disruptions,” observes David Biderman, SWANA Executive Director & CEO. “Solid waste is not the only industry facing this challenge.”

The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) released a report addressing current labor shortage in solid waste collection services, especially related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their conclusions are that the shortage is due to: increased residential waste and recyclables tonnages; COVID illnesses, school closures, and the lack of affordable child-care options that require employees to stay at home; and extended unemployment benefits and stimulus checks that provide disincentives for workers to return to the workforce.

The pandemic has had substantial impacts on solid waste collection, including making it difficult for some companies and agencies to maintain service levels.  The uptick in plastic litter from single use plastic for food packaging and medical protection due to the pandemic will be a next pandemic-induced development to follow.