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The Effects of COVID-19 on Recycling

Charles Willard, Senior Research Associate
June 23, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted patterns in life and work across the globe; it should come as no surprise that recycling efforts have been suspended in the interest of preventing its spread. Researchers are still gathering data about how the virus is transmitted and whether – or how long – it lives on various objects in a transmittable form. This lack of information has caused significant concern about whether consumers might transfer the virus to employees at redemption centers, most of which still rely on high-exposure-risk manual labor. Changes are starting to be made made across the globe:

  • Curbside recycling programs have been suspended in approximately 20 U.S. municipalities, with many more drop-off sites closed. Policies around container redemption programs and plastic bags have also been affected.

  • General curbside waste collection programs are still active; with more people staying at home, service providers are beginning to see an uptick in residential volumes. In response, collection workers have held multiple rallies to highlight safety issues, and some have refused to work until their concerns are addressed.

  • • Some redemption centers are trying to reduce the potential risk to their workers by altering container return policies. For example, one operator is asking its customers to voluntarily tie up bags filled with containers and hold them for three days – the amount of time medical researchers believe the coronavirus could live on objects – mark the bags with a brightly colored piece of string, and drop them off at a redemption center. Despite this attention to disease prevention, the recycling work force has been one of the most affected by the pandemic. New York's Department of Sanitation reported that nearly 20% of its work force was out sick at a certain point.

  • Most fast food giants have suspended bring-your-own container programs.

Although the foresight to install automated sorting technologies, eliminating the risk of disease spreading through manual sorting, could have helped alleviate the effect of COVID-19 on recycling, automated sorting technologies are simply too expensive at their current stage of development for widespread adoption. While a global pandemic like COVID-19 provides another reason to begin adopting automation, current events will not accelerate the adoption of an unready technology.

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Without automated sorting technologies, the next few months will undoubtedly see a higher percentage of plastic in landfill-bound waste streams; however, this could provide an unexpected boon to municipalities that have been drowning in ever-increasing plastic scrap surpluses since China's National Sword and help stabilize plastic scrap prices. With the slowdown in plastic waste collection and the majority hands-free recyclers still operating, these plastic scrap reserves could finally be utilized, helping regulate prices in the oversupplied plastic scrap market. While there are certainly other factors to account for, such as the shutdown of recyclers classified as nonessential businesses, the slowdown in plastic waste collection could help restimulate a struggling materials recovery facility (MRF) market and incentivize future efforts toward increased recycling rates.



- Executive Summary: The Future of Plastic Recycling

- Download the Infographic: The Future of Plastic Recycling

- Blog: How 3D Printing Can Help Fight COVID-19

- More Materials Innovation Resources 

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