We might be living amid a pandemic, but that hasn’t slowed down global waste production. If anything, we’re producing more waste now than we were at the beginning of the year with the addition of disposable gloves, masks and other personal protective equipment. What changes do we need to make to manage COVID-19-related waste?
Handling More Waste
Before the pandemic, most cities maintained recycling programs. Commercial waste generally outweighed residential waste, and there was plenty of space in the local landfills for the garbage we throw away. Now, it might not be long before cities are looking for new places to store their trash as landfills overflow. Residential waste production increased by anywhere from 20%-30% in the months since the pandemic started.
Much of this is due to the simple fact that people are spending more time at home. They’re getting takeout — which comes with a plethora of single-use plastics — and they’re ordering their necessities online, which means more packaging to throw away. Add to this the risk that the coronavirus may live on surfaces for days or weeks at a time, and COVID cleaning becomes more challenging by the day.
Managing the Risks
Despite fears of COVID-19 persisting on surfaces, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) believes waste workers are only at a moderate risk as a result of their occupation. Additionally, waste workers only merit a medium risk rating if they’re working directly with healthcare waste for patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19. This information hasn’t stopped cities and counties across the country from closing down or even entirely shuttering their local recycling programs, though.
Managing these risks also reduces any liability that the waste management company might encounter if someone in their employ gets sick from handling contaminated waste. Usually, liability complaints get restricted to chemicals and other hazardous wastes, but until we definitively understand how COVID-19 spreads, it extends to this situation as well.
Lighting a Fire
Some countries, where COVID trash is piling up with no signs of stopping, have begun considering alternative means to manage the waste. Spain, which only has three sanitary waste processing plants in the Catalonia region, has seen medical waste production increase by 300%-350% in the worst-impacted regions of the country since the beginning of the pandemic. Instead of trying to push those processing plants to their limits, Spanish officials are exploring other alternatives.
Incineration is becoming an option in hard-hit regions like Catalonia. While stabilization plants can only manage 50 tons of waste a day, the incinerators eliminated upwards of 700 tons of garbage between the start of the pandemic and mid-April. While incinerators aren’t generally employed for waste-to-energy initiatives anymore, burning the trash rather than letting it fester in a landfill may be one of the only ways to make the best of a bad situation.
Very few people alive today have ever lived through a global pandemic. For the most part, we’re making things up as we go. The shift from commercial to residential waste was expected as more people started staying home to slow the spread of the virus. While we might have anticipated it, we definitely weren’t prepared for it, and we may find that overflowing landfills are tomorrow’s problem.
Starting now, we need to start looking at COVID-19 trash as a whole. That includes the problems it might create and the best ways to manage it without backpedaling and losing all the sustainability progress we’ve made over the last couple decades. COVID-19 will likely be a part of our lives for many months to come, so we’ll have to adapt if we want to survive and thrive.