The coronavirus pandemic is causing a massive rise in the level of residential garbage, and a strain on trash collectors around the country. With thousands of Americans now staying at home, many are turning to the cleaning projects they've been putting off. Some local governments are at a loss as to how to protect their trash collectors from COVID-19.
The coronavirus pandemic has found its way into just about every aspect of day-to-day life — including trash collection. According to a report by The Washington Post, the amount of residential garbage being picked up in some areas has risen as much as 40 percent, while the amount of commercial garbage has significantly fallen away. It seems safe to assume this is because Americans are cooped up in their homes, giving them more incentive than ever to get their spring cleaning, home improvement projects and yard maintenance done.
The increase in trash is complicated, however, as it is putting a serious strain on public works departments in many places. In addition to the increased work load, trash collectors are trying their best to maintain social distance from each other, and to take care when handling other peoples' garbage that may be contaminated with COVID-19.
This has led to some big changes in how trash collectors operate. The CDC has recommended that they wear N95 masks, and in some places it is required. Some are also traveling by shuttle so that two collectors do not need to share a truck's cab. In many places, they are no long collecting bulky waste that would require two people to lift, since it would force them to stand less than six feet apart.
Here is how the increased residential trash is playing out all over the U.S.
The Post reported on the garbage pick-up situation around the D.C. area, noting that it is worst in suburban areas outside of the city. Many of those towns have reportedly stopped removing yard waste altogether, advising residents to either take it to the dump themselves or use it for composting. Reporters spoke to Peter Golkin, a spokesman for the Arlington County Department of Environmental Services, who said that it is understandable that people are spring cleaning at a time like this, but asked them to look for another way to fill their time if possible.
"We're all but certain it's people spending more time at home, cleaning out more. The weather's good — what else can you do when you're at home?" he said. "We'd prefer that they refrain from spring cleaning this spring and take a break. Don't listen to your internal Marie Kondo."
Trash pick-up rules have already been changed in the D.C. area, and officials say more restrictions are possible if the onslaught does not let up.
The scene is similar in New Mexico, where the Carlsbad Current Argus reported on an overwhelmed public works department. Local government officials there admitted that, in all the fear about the pandemic itself, this is one of the consequences that most did not see coming.
"They're going home, they're doing spring cleaning, doing the honey do list that has probably been backed logged on them, and they're working and that's obviously generating more trash and where's that stuff going to go? It's going to go to our convenience stations," said Public Works Director Jason Burns.
Eddy County, New Mexico has already expanded its convenience stations and purchased new equipment to help handle the rush of incoming trash. Burns hopes that automatic gates on the the dumping areas will ease the process for everyone, since it will free up collectors and allow residents to drop off their own refuse more freely.
The town of Cheektowaga, New York has already made some big changes to trash pick-up rules as well, using Gov. Andrew Cuomo's State of Emergency as a guideline for how long the new protocols will go on. According to local NBC News affiliate WGRZ, the town will only accept waste from town-authorized garbage and recycling cans — nothing that does not fit or is not in them will be removed.
The exception is furniture — officials say residents can leave one large furniture item per collection by the curb, but any excess trash by the street will not be collected. Like other areas, grass clippings and yard waste will not be collected until further notice.
"We thank our residents for their cooperation during these difficult times. I am very proud of my employees for continuing to serve residents during this crisis," said Sanitation Foreman Scott Kowal.
Since the coronavirus outbreak hit the U.S., the city of Alexandria, Virginia has seen a 40 percent increase in residential trash tonnage, according to local ABC News affiliate WJLA. In addition to staying at home to slow the spread of the virus, residents are being asked to minimize waste when possible, as the strain is beginning to show on the local waste management system.
Residents are also being asked to take care with potentially contaminated waste for the protection of the trash collectors themselves. That includes securely tying off bags with used wipes, tissues or paper towels, and rinsing food containers or other liquid vessels. In general, the city is asking residents to "wait to dispose of the bulk materials in your basement, attic or garage until normal operations resume."
When similar issues hit Ashwaubenon, Wisconsin, a father-daughter duo decided to do their part for the community in recognition of Earth Day. According to local ABC News affiliate WKOW, 7-year-old Raya Shermitzler and her dad, Scott, have started a Facebook group called The Great American COVID Garbage Pickup Project. They are simply picking up trash as they go for walks during this time of social distancing, and others are joining in.
The Shermitzlers have hundreds of members on board with their initiative now, with some as far away as New Zealand.
According to a report by Wired, the pandemic is not only effecting the amount of waste being generated, but the type of waste as well. The outlet found that the ways in which public works departments are altering their practices to protect workers is adding to the already global issue of plastic waste and recyclables.
"Recycling — that's been in sort of a crash—is now getting even worse," TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky told the outlet.
The exponential buildup of plastic waste is expected to get even worse after this week's oil price crash. Since plastic is made from oil, it just got much cheaper to make, and manufacturers are expected to take advantage of that. Szaky told reporters that the global recycling crisis is not an issue of developing the right science to use plastic sustainably, but of finding the right business model to do so while continuing to turn a profit.
Signs of Wealth Disparity
Finally, a report by The Daily Beast drew attention to another aspect of the increased trash production: wealth disparity. It noted that, with millions of Americans out of jobs because of the pandemic, the wealthiest are merely bored at home, and are spending money on "toys." This is putting an unnecessary strain on garbage haulers.
The report focused on wealthy communities like the Hamptons, now full of "wealthy Manhattanites fleeing the national COVID-19 epicenter that is New York City." Reporters spoke to sanitation workers there, who explained the cognitive dissonance in the kinds of bulky waste they have been handling since the pandemic began.
"At this one stop there were there or four freezers delivered and they came in wooden crates, so we had to remove the wood, and there was a lot of debris," one person said. "That's happening more and more."0comments
Trash collectors can tell that, in their boredom, the wealthy are throwing out furniture, appliances, toys and other things, then ordering replacements for delivery. They then handle the massive amounts of cardboard and packing material associated with the shopping sprees. "Knowing that the virus itself can stay on certain objects for a day or two days—that’s the scary part of it," a trash collector said.