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The Coronavirus Is Causing a Boom in Household Waste
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=55154"><span class="small">Drew Costley, OneZero</span></a>   
Monday, 20 July 2020 13:05

Costley writes: "Even though most cities have relaxed their shelter-in-place orders and people have begun to leave their homes more, residential waste is still higher than in average years."

Garbage. (photo: AzmanL/Getty Images)
Garbage. (photo: AzmanL/Getty Images)

The Coronavirus Is Causing a Boom in Household Waste

By Drew Costley, OneZero

20 July 20

Experts say increases in single-use plastic waste in particular threaten ‘recent gains’ in addressing a ‘major environmental problem’

illions of people sheltering in place during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the household waste problem in the United States, according to experts on waste management. And even though most cities have relaxed their shelter-in-place orders and people have begun to leave their homes more, residential waste is still higher than in average years.

The increase in residential waste in cities could overflow existing landfills, leaving some cities looking for more space to hold the extra waste. Cities have put their recycling programs on hold temporarily or cut recycling programs entirely, exacerbating the problem. And the reemergence of single-use plastic — like plastic bags and utensils being used more in retail and restaurants — during the pandemic will lead to more carcinogenic plastic chemicals entering the environment.

“There has been a substantial increase in household waste generation given so many people [are] isolating at home,” Marian Chertow, PhD, associate professor of industrial environmental management and director for the Center for Industrial Ecology at Yale University. She said there’s been “a corresponding decrease in commercial waste as businesses and restaurants were shut down.” As millions of people shifted from working in offices, shopping at stores, and eating at restaurants to doing all of those things in their house almost exclusively, the waste they produced also shifted from entering the waste stream from all of those places to just one. At the same time, some consumers started ordering more takeout and shopping online for items they may have previously purchased at stores, which meant more food packaging and shipping materials in their trash bins.

Residential waste rose by 20% to 30%, depending on who you ask. Brandon Wright, a spokesperson for the National Waste and Recycling Association, says members of the organization, which include Waste Management (one of the largest waste management companies in the United States), have reported a 20% increase in the amount of residential waste collected. Cole Rosengren, a senior editor at Waste Dive, an industry trade publication that is tracking the coronavirus’ impact on the waste stream, tells OneZero the increase was between 25% and 30% on average. In some U.S. cities, residential waste increased by as much 40%.

This has several states, like Iowa, Kentucky, and West Virginia, are suspending bans on yard waste in landfills due to the coronavirus. And there are reports from the around the country, like in California and Maryland, of landfills and waste haulers being overburdened by the uptick in waste. “This place has been a madhouse ever since they started shutting things down,” Dwight Amoss, manager of a landfill in Maryland, told the Baltimore Sun. “It can be a little stressful.”

Chertow and others who study waste management are particularly concerned about the increase in single-use plastics created as cities have waived plastic bag fees and people have relied more heavily on online delivery services like Amazon, DoorDash, and Postmates for retail and food. Even as cities begin to reopen businesses and restaurants, the use of single-use plastic will likely continue because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reopening guidelines recommend restaurants use disposable utensils.

“There has been a proliferation of single-use plastic threatening recent gains in addressing this major environmental problem,” David Rachelson, chief sustainability officer at waste tech company Rubicon, told OneZero in an email. Chertow says the increase in single-use plastics reflects what people perceive as safe to use during the pandemic.

“The increase in plastics reflects a safety concern: that in the pandemic, our families, customers, workers are better off with single-use items such as takeout food packaging that seem more sanitary and can be disposed rather than reused,” she says.

Single-use plastics, like plastic straws, packaging materials, and plastic bags, create environmental health hazards after they’re disposed of in landfills or incinerators. There is no federal law limiting the use of single-use plastic, and state and local laws seem to be flailing due to pandemic concerns. These plastics are made with chemicals that are carcinogenic or pose other health hazards, according to research published in Science of the Total Environment in 2019.

Even though some states and cities have relaxed their shelter-in-place laws, household waste is still higher than it is on average, according to Rosengren. Experts agree, too, that the latest spikes in coronavirus cases create uncertainty around where our waste will be generated and how it will be disposed of.

“There is no question that waste and recycling flows will continue to fluctuate over the next few months as the Covid-19 pandemic unfolds,” Rachelson says.

The challenges in dealing with waste amid the pandemic have increased interest in using automation and robotics to collect, sort, and manage waste.

“Over the years, waste collection has become safer as there is less contact between workers and the waste itself owing to hydraulic lifts and other aids,” Chertow says. “Several companies have sprung up with new products including waste recycling robots for sorting, optical sorting systems, and artificial intelligence systems for improved tracking and enabling visualization.”

But this new tech costs money, and budgets for waste and recycling are trending downward due to the pandemic. In some cities, Rosengren says, curbside recycling programs were temporarily paused for a variety of reasons, like workers’ fear of catching the coronavirus while collecting or staff shortages due to workers actually catching the virus. David Biderman, executive director and CEO of Solid Waste Association of North America, told Vox that 60 to 80 communities put their curbside recycling programs on hold. The highest that number got was 150 communities suspending their curbside recycling programs, Rosengren says.

More recently, cities have begun suspending recycling programs for at least the next year because of budgetary concerns. New York City, for example, has cut electronic recycling and organic waste collection. “We expect that perhaps there is more of that to come. Budgetary factors are going to be a real drain on some of the cities in terms of what programs they can offer,” says Rosengren. “So that’s been a big issue.” your social media marketing partner