As local government agencies navigate their way through the daily changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic, public works such as curbside recycling have been among the first to be halted.
COVID-19 case numbers have surpassed 84,000 in the United States, and states across the country have issued stay-at-home orders, including the closings of nonessential business. Although the DHS has deemed waste management and recycling companies as essential, frontline workers, like drivers and sanitation employees, are at great risk.
In Louisiana, Jefferson Parish, home to roughly 435,000 residents, made the decision to stop curbside recycling pickup several weeks ago. The parish collects from about 12,000 homes and small businesses in the area.
“The decision was made jointly with our hauler,” says Katherine Costanza, assistant director of environmental services. The parish contracts with a nearby material recovery facility (MRF) operated by Waste Connections, headquartered in Texas, which was equally concerned about infection risk. “They were beginning to worry about handlers touching the materials that may have the virus living on them,” she says.
The primary goal, Costanza says, has been to minimize the spread of the coronavirus as much as possible. She says without working together with the parish’s hauler, this wouldn’t be possible. “[The plan] has to be something you draw up together; it’s the only way we can minimize the spread.”For the parish sanitation employees, many have been moved around instead of implementing sweeping layoffs. “We tried to move them around to the best of our abilities,” she says.
Drivers have been moved to garbage trucks, which has seemed to be a needed move in that department.
“With so many children at home now, waste that came from the schools is now going to the curbside collection,” she says. “So, our drivers have been working overtime to keep up.”
As of March 29, Jefferson Parish, which neighbors Orleans Parish, reported 761 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
In Alabama, the city of Athens, a smaller municipality, is facing a different issue. The city uses a MRF in nearby Decatur that is operated by inmates. With new state regulations, the inmates aren’t able to carry out their jobs, leaving Athens with no choice but to stop recycling pickup.
“Right now, we’re telling our residents that they can either store it or throw it out with the rest of their waste, where it will go to the landfill,” says Earl Glaze, director of sanitation.
Glaze says the date for the recycling program to resume will depend on when the inmates can return to their jobs.
Like Jefferson Parish, the city of West Plains, Missouri, is relocating its sanitation workers as it halts recycling services March 30. Brant Lidgard, sanitation and recycling director, says the department and city officials made the decision together to help mitigate the spread of the virus.
The city operates its own MRF, and while drivers have been switched to garbage collection routes, MRF workers will switch to six-hour-long shifts to reduce the amount of people working per shift and risk of exposure. The facility is also no longer accepting public drop-offs.
“We’ve told our residents to hang on to their recyclable materials if they can,” Lidgard says. The city is tentatively looking at resuming services April 13, but that’s very much up in the air. The city’s 11,000 residents contribute about 30 percent participation in the recycling program, which is self-sorted.
Long term, Lidgard says he thinks paper prices will increase.
Aside from flattening the curve in the spread of the coronavirus, other municipalities like Fort Smith, Arksansas, wanted to cover their bases and ensure sufficient staffing in case the virus did wipe out the department for a few weeks.
“The decision behind this was not so much the workers collecting [the material], but making sure that I had enough employees to collect the garbage that would decay if I didn’t have enough employees to collect it in the event that this virus hit my department,” says Kyle Foreman, director of sanitation for Fort Smith.
Foreman says the department decided to cancel what he deemed to be “nonessential” service for the time being. “We’re focusing on garbage collection and garbage disposal.”
As of March 29, the state of Arkansas reported 449 confirmed cases and six deaths. Fort Smith, which is a border city to Oklahoma, is indicated to have one to four confirmed cases, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.
Now in week three of suspending Fort Smith’s recycling program, Foreman says the sanitation department is planning to keep the suspension through this week. However, that could be extended as news changes.