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SAFELY COLLECTING HOUSEHOLD WASTE IN THE AGE OF COVID-19
Cities and regions across Europe face many challenges in collecting household waste while limiting the spread of the coronavirus. Local authorities are very keen to exchange experiences and on the measures taken to ensure continuity of service and the safety of waste personnel .
While the situation varies in different European countries according to local conditions and national regulation, a few recurring trends and lessons can be observed.
NALAS, the Network of Local Authorities in South East Europe, will host a series of three online panel discussions covering topics ranging from maintaining waste management business operations, through public health and safety of participants in the waste management chain, ending with the issue of the resilience of the service during and after the crises. The panel discussion series will bring together practitioners in the field, local decision-makers, experts, general managers of the waste management PUCs, local authorities and PUC staff, representatives of the local government Associations, and NALAS Task Force members to exchange experiences about the provision of solid waste management service in the time of COVID-19 crises.
To register for the first Panel Discussion (20 May 2020, 14:00, Zoom Platform), please click HERE. The registration form also allows you to ask questions before the event and we are inviting you to use this opportunity.
Rising demand, loss of staff
On the one hand, there are staff shortages in several countries due to waste workers falling sick or being quarantined. On the other, there is an increase in the need for their services. There has been a significant rise in household waste, including food and other organic waste, due to citizens staying at home.
There has also been a tremendous increase in bulky waste as residents clear out their homes, leading to the shutdown of local recycling centres to ensure social distancing and in an increase in unauthorised dumping.
In some countries, such as Austria and Estonia, some local private waste managers have stopped their activities at very short notice because of the outbreak and local governments had to quickly implement solutions to ensure continuity of service.
The recycling chain is facing challenges for some waste streams. For textile or metals for example, collection is running as usual, but the stores and factories which would normally buy these materials are often closed. What’s more, the paper waste stream is thinning due to stores no longer throwing away paper and cardboard. Factories recycling to produce toilet paper or tissues are concerned about shortages.
In the majority of countries, dedicated task forces have been created to assess the situation in real time and prepare contingency plans. National governments are providing guidelines and recommendations for local authorities. Waste services are considered everywhere to be a key public service for the health of citizens and are still running.
Several measures have been taken to adapt to the rise in waste and reduction in waste personnel. Local governments are sometimes joining forces with other public institutions and with private companies to maintain waste collection. In Spain for instance, civil protection units and even military emergency units are ensuring collection where necessary. In Germany, the managers of commercial waste, who otherwise have no customers due to store and restaurant closures, are assisting public waste managers.
Many cities are prioritising waste streams. Food, organic, residual and medical waste are typically given priority. The collection of other streams, such as packaging and paper, can be reduced if necessary.
In Spain, Italy and Germany, new protocols have been put in place to manage waste from quarantined individuals. These people no longer sort their own waste but put everything in one bag. Waste workers are to be equipped with masks and individual protection, although this can be difficult to achieve given the current shortages. In Germany, waste personnel will soon be tested to check if they have been infected.
CEMR survey of recycling in local government
Meanwhile, a CEMR survey: recycling centres across Europe in times of COVID-19
Waste managers today face the challenge of maintaining their services, often in the face of increased demand, while protecting workers and users from infection. As many countries are beginning to relax lockdown restrictions, CEMR organised a survey of its members to determine the state of play concerning recycling centres and share good practices.
Fifteen associations of local and regional governments from 12 countries* responded to the survey, which was completed on 21 April.
What the CEMR survey shows...
In almost all countries surveyed, recycling centres are open, most often with restrictions. In almost half of countries, the recycling centres were temporarily shut down, while in others they always remained open. In only one country (the United Kingdom), were the vast majority of recycling centres still closed at the time of the survey.
Various rules and restrictions are in place in the different centres in order to minimise the risk of infection. In terms of access, measures include allowing few visitors at the same time through a temporary appointment system and reduced opening hours.
At some centres, users must remain in their cars in the waiting line without personal access to the premises. Vulnerable or sick/quarantined individuals may be banned from entry.
Many rules ensuring social distancing are in force. These include the mandatory use of protective masks and gloves for users and workers, cash free payments and no more assistance from workers to unload waste.
Finally, recycling centres are to be used only for urgent disposal and there may be limitations to the amount of waste one can deposit.
Why have recycling centres reopened?
Many recycling centres were forced to close at the beginning of the lockdown. Some centres were initially unable to ensure social distancing and many municipalities expected staff shortages due to coronavirus infections.
Waste managers began to prioritise their services, such as by focusing on front door collection of residual waste. However, due to confinement, inhabitants have been decluttering their homes and gardening more, without being able to get rid of the resulting waste.
This led to an unprecedented rise in unauthorised dumping of waste and increased pressure to reopen recycling centres. For just under half of survey respondents, the reopening of recycling centres was due to a loosening of confinement, while for a slight majority this was due to increased pressure.
Europe’s towns and cities have to manage and process some 250 million tonnes of municipal waste each year, 482 kg per inhabitant.