Where is waste management after COVID-19?

After the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns in most countries in March, we have seen many things happening in waste management. Now, as several countries have re-opened and trying to get back to life as it was before, we are in a sort of transition period, where some things have changed, some are back to where they were and with some we are not really sure where we are. Since many organisations are writing about waste and COVID-19 impacts, we thought just to bring them together and do a short status update.

Call for green recovery

Almost at the same time when entering lockdowns, people started talking about the need to create new normal, as the old one wasn’t working. As the governments started discussing need to support the struggling economy, the term “green recovery” has emerged – giving financial aid to those who are willing to contribute to a more environmentally friendly way of making business. We are happy to see that at least in European Union, 17 climate and environment ministers called for continuing with its Green Deal and the European Commission has announced that the recovery should be green. Now it’s of course up the national governments to take this ambition forward. Several environmental organisations are still skeptical if there is enough ambition to make it happen.

Summary: while the talk about green recovery is in the air, it’s still unclear if it will translate into action and if it will be enough. Action taken by the European Commission so far, seems anyway to align with good intentions (see following sections). 

 

Halting the bans on single use plastics?

The progress made on plastic bag bans has taken a step back in many places, especially in the USA, as several plastic bag bans were put on a halt. Much of it has also been due to push and misinformation spread by the plastic industry, as reported by US-based organization UPSTREAM.

On the other hand, the European Union has sent out a strong message that the COVID-19 crisis does not justify postponing the long awaited single-use plastics directive. The vice-president of European Commission Frans Timmermans’ quote on the matter has been wildly shared:” I really did not appreciate people writing to me and used the need for personal protective equipment as a reason not to have a ban on single-use plastics – there’s really no relationship.”
Also, some have drawn attention to the fact that single-use solutions (including one-way shopping bags) simply increase the volume of materials we get in contact with, and may have been touched by anybody from production to supply, hence, in principle, they may make us more vulnerable, not safer. 

Summary: single use plastic items are not in themselves safer option against potential diseases. Proper hygiene rules must be applied in any case and when it comes to shopping bags, simply washing your cloth bag regularly (and ironing later just in case) should be sufficient.

 

Reusables

The consumption of single use items has increased a lot, in the belief that they are safer than reusables. UPSTREAM has put together a nice FAQ file, answering main questions concerning reusables. Although they refer to the guidelines given out by US official bodies, the main principles can apply everywhere.

If you want to dig deeper into the reusable systems’ topic, you can read the interview with Tom Szaky here, the founder of Loop. Loop provides reusable packaging for food and hygiene products for big companies and they have been operating as usual also during the pandemic.

Summary: properly washed and handled reusable bottles, cups and foodware are safe to use even during a virus outbreak. But this may also mean investing more in proper reusable systems.

 

Disposable gloves, masks and medical waste

The outbreak has given us new types of single use waste: face masks and gloves, which now can be found already on streets and in the sea. When it comes to gloves, the simple alternative is to wash your hands with soap and warm water or disinfect them, like most of us have already been taught to do; also some epidemiologists have brought up the fact that gloves would have to be sanitised anyway before touching anything on the shelves, hence they are basically useless, and only make sense for the personnel while preparing food. With face masks the story has been more complicated. The shortage of face masks has actually showed us very well the essence of single use items – we are always dependent on the constant flow of new products, especially when are using them fast and a lot. There have already been some developments allowing to reuse masks for medical workers, for example a special facility in a hospital in Boston, USA can sanitize up to 2000 medical masks per day. In Italy there have been renting services popping up for reusable masks with centralized sanitation system. 

When it comes to treating COVID-19 related health care waste, international organisation Health Care Without Harm has written a nice summary on that topic.

Summary: Safest way to protect yourself is cleaning your hands properly instead of wearing gloves, (unless you are a worker in healthcare services or other very specific cases). While there are some possibilities to sanitize medical masks, it’s still small scale. When using disposable face masks, we can simply make sure they are safely in the waste bin and not flying away.

Medical waste doesn’t have to be incinerated, as medical waste autoclaves and microwaving systems, which are part of this type of waste treatment, already kill any resistant pathogens.

 

Separate collection of waste

In several countries, separate collection of waste stopped either from infected people or altogether, many recycling centers closed temporarily. In order to bring some clarity on how to treat waste during the pandemic, European Commission issued a guiding document, listing principles how to assure safe separate collection of waste, and mandating Local Authorities to keep collection schemes up and running as an essential service. European organisation ARC+ has been collecting and updating the waste management status from most European countries and some from outside on their website. Note that it’s simply an overview what is currently being done, not all countries have necessarily taken justified steps.

Summary: there is no evidence that waste transmits SARS-CoV-2 virus. As long as proper safety measures are applied, separate collection can carry on as usual, and recycling and composting activities may go on based on usual practices

 

Recycling in trouble

Like any sectors, recycling has been affected as well, from the need to protect the workers to disrupted collection of recyclables. In addition to that, recycling is a business that needs a market in order to survive. As the price of oil dropped, so did the price of virgin plastic, which means it has been even more difficult for recycled plastic to compete with it financially. Also, the fact that many industrial activities were on hold during lockdowns, minimised possibilities to market recycled materials. News of struggling recycling business have been reported in China and in Europe. There are of course some things that can be done, this article from Maine, USA, offers some solutions.

Summary: the ever growing flow of plastic waste, difficulties of finding markets of recycled plastic and other factors have been even more highlighted in the COVID-19 crisis, showing the need to make big changes in the recycling systems, like reducing the consumption of single-use plastics and demanding recycled content in certain products, among other things.

 

Want to know more about the waste issues in connection to COVID-19? Zero Waste Europe has also made a very nice FAQ compilation of the same issues as well as tackling topics like incineration during the pandemic and the situation of waste pickers.

 

This summary is by no means a complete collection of all the COVID-19 and waste management related stories. If you know an important angle that has not been covered, feel free to share it with us in the comments or write to [email protected]