By Sydney Harris, Senior Policy Associate, Product Stewardship Institute
As states responded to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, municipal recycling programs across the U.S. felt the impacts. Eco-Entreprises Quebec, the PRO for packaging and paper products in Quebec, provided funding for PSI to track the impacts of the virus on U.S. recycling programs. PSI found that, although many states deemed recycling an essential public service or a critical piece of manufacturing for high-demand items such as toilet paper and shipping boxes, dozens of local programs were put on pause due to staffing shortages and health concerns. Furthermore, commercial and bottle deposit materials decreased dramatically, while residentially generated trash and recycling volumes sharply increased, with notable impacts to the recycling supply chain
Though “Essential,” Recycling Suspended in Many Communities
Beginning in March, at least 40 states issued stay-at-home orders that closed all non-essential businesses and directed residents to stay inside for several weeks or more. At least 10 of these states specifically named recycling on lists of essential services, while most others allowed recycling to continue as either public works services or critical manufacturing. Unfortunately, dozens of curbside and drop-off recycling programs were still suspended; many remain on hold as of early June. Residents were frequently instructed to comingle recyclables with trash for curbside collection, while some programs offered the option to store materials at home until services resumed. The largest municipal programs impacted by the pandemic were Miami, FL, where residents were instructed to comingle materials with trash; Los Angeles, CA, where at least half of curbside materials collected were diverted to landfill; and Philadelphia, PA, where curbside collection was suspended for a week and then scaled back to bi-weekly to accommodate staffing shortages. In some jurisdictions, curbside recycling materials were diverted to waste-to-energy plants.
Safety the Priority, but PPE in Short Supply
Consensus emerged within the medical community that handling waste and recyclables does not pose a significant transmission risk to workers, provided employee safety is prioritized with adequate social distancing and personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves and sometimes gowns or face shields. The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA), ISRI, and the Northeast Resource Recovery Association (NRRA) all issued guidance on best practices for worker safety.
In late March, NWRA wrote to the Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requesting that waste and recycling workers receive priority access to PPE, but waste and recycling collectors across the country still experienced PPE shortages. Some programs turned to creative solutions to procure PPE for employees, such as the Chittenden Solid Waste District (CSWD) in Vermont, which purchased washable cloth masks for all staff online. In Swanzey, NH, residents worked together to create cloth masks for sanitation workers.
Residential Volumes Up, Commercial Volumes Down
Haulers experienced significant increases in residential trash and recycling volumes in nearly every state – sometimes up 40% from average amounts. Many operators cited an increase in spring cleaning as a contributing factor, in addition to people simply generating more of their waste at home. With reduced staffing and increased generation, municipal programs struggled to keep up. At the same time, haulers saw an unprecedented decline in commercially generated waste as businesses closed their doors.
Bottle Bill Programs Almost Universally Interrupted
Nine out of the ten U.S. states with bottle deposit bills temporarily suspended their programs to some degree. Most announced periods of non-enforcement, which, combined with a general decrease in people spending time outside, effectively shuttered the programs. Even where programs remained open, grocery stores and drop-off facilities often stopped accepting containers for redemption, and many residents simply began storing bottles and cans at home.
The Result: Major Supply Chain Impacts
Lack of commercial and bottle deposit materials, coupled with the steep increase in residential volumes, caused major shifts in the recycling supply chain. Because commercial materials and deposit containers are typically less contaminated than residential materials, they comprise the primary feedstock for packaging remanufacturing in the U.S. For example, roughly 40% of recycled aluminum and 60% of cullet used to manufacture cans, bottles, and jars in the U.S. comes from deposit programs.
Meanwhile, residential materials tend to be shipped to end markets for durable goods, such as automotive manufacturing. During the height of state shut-downs, demand all but ended for durable goods manufacturing while packaging demand spiked with the increase in packaged food, beverage, and cleaning supply sales. To remain operational, packaging manufacturers began accepting curbside-collected materials as feedstock. For example, CarbonLite, a major bottle-to-bottle recycler that normally relies exclusively on PET recovered through the bottle deposit system for its California facility, reported obtaining 60% of its feedstock from residential curbside sources.
The China Sword and the Pandemic Together Create Financial Woes
Long-term financial impacts of the coronavirus on U.S. recycling programs are uncertain. Municipalities were already facing increased recycling costs due to the lingering impacts of the China Sword policy. Now, these cost increases are exacerbated by potential rate adjustments due to spiking residential volumes and a continued decline in end markets for recycled materials, especially plastics. In a hopeful turn, however, municipal programs began to reopen around the country in late April, and have continued to reopen ever since.
Photos by Karolina Grabowska, Pexels.com
COVID-19 has impacted the recycling industry and product stewardship community in many ways. While some entities are innovating to ensure environmental protection, others are abusing the situation to push single-use plastics.
PSI’s efforts to track the impacts on plastics use has gained the attention of Vice News, and we are also tracking impacts and new best practices for other products, such as electronics, HHW, and more. Share your experience — take our survey to help us better understand the impact of COVID-19 on U.S. product stewardship programs.