America's recycling slows because of coronavirus but 'we won't run out of toilet paper’

There has been a 50-60 per cent drop in commercial recycling in the wake of Covid-19, one expert tells The Independent

Louise Boyle
New York
Monday 23 March 2020 22:41 GMT
What is circular economy recycling

The novel coronavirus has seen a downturn in US recycling with a number of programmes halted and others curtailed.

There are now 14,510 deaths and 332,935 confirmed cases of Covid-19, according to the World Health Organisation, across 189 countries.

The US death toll is now more than 500 and governors across the country are being forced to consider more drastic action to contain the spread of the contagion.

Mick Barry, president of Mid America Recycling and chairperson of the National Recycling Coalition, told The Independent that there was a “quantum shift” in commercial recycling with a 50-60 per cent drop as office buildings closed their doors and a range of industries wound down operations in the wake of Covid-19.

He said that although household recycling was maintaining some normality for the time being, he expected an increase in material generated from residences as more people work from home and heed the advice of public health officials to socially isolate.

If household recycling programmes are curtailed, it leaves residents with two options – keeping recyclables in their homes or the waste going to landfill.

“In the situation of having a small living space like an apartment, one would have to consider throwing recyclables out because we don’t know how long this is going to go on for,” he said, adding that cardboard boxes and clean recyclables could be kept for a couple of weeks if the homeowner has space.

The consequence of less recycling, Mr Barry said, are fewer recyclables in the supply chain for mills to make products like cardboard boxes and toilet paper. However, that doesn’t mean Americans should panic about the latter.

“As we see reduction in raw materials provided by recyclers, we will see the mills turning to wood pulp to stay at the same capacity. They will be able to supply our needs like toilet paper,” he said.

“As a college-trained forester I would be remiss in not adding that our forests are truly Mother Nature’s ultimate recycling effort as the most renewable resource we have.

“There’s lots of wood fibre in this country that needs to be harvested to protect the environment because every time there’s a major forest fire, we lose air quality.”

For a number of authorities, it’s business as usual for recycling programmes albeit with some tweaks.

In New York, the Department of Sanitation is continuing core services as normal but has suspended some services to protect workers like food scrap drop-off sites and electronics collections programmes at curbside.

“We are starting work shifts at 5am, to avoid public crowds and traffic,” the department said in a statement to The Independent.

In San Francisco Michael Sangiacomo, CEO of recycling firm Recology, tweeted that shift work had been staggered and some collections will be happening overnight.

In Tacoma, Washington, the city said there could be delays in pickups.

In Utah, Salt Lake City Green, who operate curbside waste and recycling collection, tweeted last week that all services are continuing as normal but that their offices are closed to the public.

Humboldt County in California was closing its recycling centre in Eureka to decrease person-to-person interactions but continuing with curbside pickups.

The East Lansing Department of Public Works in Michigan closed the recycling drop-off site but continued with collection of curbside recycling.

However, there are a growing number of localised changes as the coronavirus continues to disrupt everyday life.

In the city of Dalton, Georgia, curbside recycling was suspended by the department of public works on 16 March for at least two weeks.

“Because curbside recycling pickup requires sorting by hand and there are many unknowns about how the virus spreads from surface to surface, this service is being suspended to avoid chances of community spread,” reported the Moultrie Observer.

In Ohio, Ashland County Recycle-it closed community recycling drop-off bins to protect employees.

“We probably would not have pulled [the bins] with the coronavirus scare other than we get things that should not be in the tubs,” manager Alex Brady told the Times-Gazette.

“We receive bags of used tissues, feminine hygiene products, medical waste, IV tubes, sometimes needles and the partners at Recycle-it are nervous about ... what people may be sharing with us.”

In Alabama, the city of Athens suspended curbside recycling until further notice.

“The city’s recycling vendor in Decatur cannot get inmates to help operate the facility due to state protocols related to Covid-19,” WZDX noted.

Last week in Somerset County, New Jersey, the recycling centre was closed and curbside pickups discontinued until further notice.

In Tennessee, the city of Franklin stopped its recycling program until further notice.

Businesses are also taking preventative measures against the coronavirus.

In a statement, Alaska Air said: “We’re discontinuing onboard sorting of recycling items to reduce touching passenger-handled materials. We’ll continue to collect and recycle materials on Horizon Air’s simplified beverage service of water and orange juice.”

Best Buy has also suspended its product trade-in and recycling services to protect employees and customers, the Verge reported.

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