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Rubbish Is Piling Up And Recycling Has Stalled – Waste Systems Must Adapt

The Oasis Reporters

May 3, 2020

Keiron Philip Roberts, University of Portsmouth; Anne Stringfellow, University of Southampton, and Ian Williams, University of Southampton

Coronavirus has revealed just how fragile our waste cycle is. Globally, collection services are being reduced because of social distancing, staff absences and concerns about workers’ health and safety. This is affecting the collection, sorting, processing and treatment of wastes as well as markets for materials made from recycling and composts.

In the UK alone, 46% of recycling facilities have reduced or stopped treatment. Domestic glass and some recycling, garden and food waste collection schemes have been cancelled or restricted, with almost all household waste recycling centres closed. This impact is being seen around the world, with the US reporting that 31% of their facilities have been negatively affected. Unless these recyclable materials are stored safely at home, they may end up being sent to end-of-life treatments, such as landfill or incineration.

Changes in lifestyle are adding to this problem. The amount of waste generated in commercial and industrial workplaces has drastically reduced. In contrast, home clear-outs and renovations during the lockdown are creating domestic waste that can’t be disposed of at recycling centres.

In the UK, this has resulted in a 300% increase in reported fly-tipping in rural communities. Items that could have been reused via donation to charity are being disposed of unnecessarily. The UK’s high street charity retail shops – which generate around £270 million annually for good causes – now find their future under threat at a time when demand for their services is highest.

Industries that rely heavily on recycled materials are therefore the ones feeling the most pressure in terms of getting hold of resources. The US plastic recycling industry has asked congress for a US$1 billion (£800 million) bailout “to meet the demands of this crisis”. There are warnings for cardboard shortages for future packaging as we produce and recycle less at work, and sharp increases in online shopping brings more card and paper into our homes.

Meanwhile, dramatic reductions in wood waste recycling (to nearly 10% of capacity) thanks to construction slowing, and household recycling centres closing, is having knock on effects on biomass energy generation. The manufacture of cars has reduced globally, reducing the demand for recycled steel and aluminium. Medical waste, which requires specialist collection and treatment, is increasing rapidly.

When you add the panic-bought £1.9 billion of groceries to this – and that’s just a UK figure – some of which went straight into the bin, it’s clear that COVID-19 is having a massive impact on waste management and negatively affecting the environment.

Linear or circular?

This is a problem, but not an insurmountable one. Economies will largely be able to deal with this disruption to the waste cycle because they are, for the most part, still largely based on a linear economy, in which virgin resources are extracted when needed to make goods and disposed at the end of their lives.

But many countries are now in the process of transitioning to a future management system based on the “circular economy”, where the aim is to reuse and return all waste material to manufacturers as a resource. Some countries, and sectors, are further ahead than others in this process, and have managed to embed recovery and return into their design, such as deposit return schemes for bottles. But this is a gradual transition and at present the world economy is still more linear than circular.

Greg Abolo

Blogger at The Oasis Reporters.

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