24-25 Jul 2024

How has COVID affected the waste and recycling industry?

Nov 13, 2020

The pandemic has no doubt seen great health impacts across several industries, communities and business sectors.

Amidst the growing health concerns, waste and recycling operations continued throughout the pandemic. This saw many businesses needing to rapidly shift their operations to fall in line with quickly changing regulations and rules to adhere ensure COVID-Safe workplaces and processes. So how exactly was the waste, recycling and resource recovery sector affected?

Ahead of their session at the AWRE Online Event, we spoke to panelists Tony Khoury of Waste Contractors & Recyclers Association of NSW, Cr Linda Scott from local Government of NSW and Mike Ritchie of MRA Consulting Group about the impacts of the pandemic on waste collections, workers and general operations, as well as some of the learnings and challenges presented by the events of 2020.

Q. Amidst the pandemic, waste and recycling operations continued, what has the impact been on workers and general operations in the industry?

Tony: In the first few months of the pandemic, we saw employers and workers, alongside many across local communities struggle to obtain supplies of essential items. These included things like hand sanitiser and dust masks. We also then saw a number of operations having to stand down or retrench staff, and this was due to the lower commercial and industrial waste volumes being produced, as a result of fewer opportunities of face-to-face selling.

Amongst these initial challenges, the NSW Government worked closely with the industry and local government to ensure that critical waste services continued.

Q. What kind of learnings, challenges and opportunities have been presented by the events of the pandemic that can be applied to the waste and recycling industry?

Tony: One of the biggest learnings to come out of the pandemic is the heavy reliance by Australians on imported goods and materials and how that has proven to be a potential threat to on-going business operations. However, on the other side of the spectrum, the waste management sector cannot rely on the export of baled recyclables if we’re to sustain our long-term recycling efforts.

Mike: A big congratulations is owed to the industry, as waste and recycling services have continued throughout the pandemic with almost no interruption. We have also seen commercial waste down by 15-20% due to the lockdowns, namely in Victoria. However, we have also seen household waste increase by the same margin, again due to the lockdowns. An observation to be noted is the amount of PPE going to landfill, representing <0.01% of the total waste that has gone to landfill during these last few months. It’s also important to recognise how Australia and our industry in the country has managed the on-comings of COVID, which has shown to be  a little better than our counterparts in the USA and Europe where facilities have been closed entirely.

Cr Linda Scott: The spike in waste generated during the COVID pandemic from increased takeaway packaging including plastics, as well as the higher risk of contaminants in our recyclables, simply drives home what LGNSW is pushing for – a complete overhaul of NSW’s approach to waste and recycling.

Q. Have you seen any notable changes in the waste, recycling and resource recovery sector as a result of the pandemic?

Tony: One good initiative that came out of the pandemic was the staggered start times for workers, to allow for better social distancing outcomes. Plus, with more people at home and for longer periods, there has been a greater volume of pizza boxes in recycling bins. Material Recovery Facilities though have seen a reported increase in food contamination rates.

Mike: The most tangible effect has been 20% growth in household recycling tonnages as more of us work from home and buy materials on-line which then generate domestic plastic and cardboard packaging.

Q. What does the recovery plan look like for the industry as we move into a post-COVID future?

Tony: One of the biggest things to come out of the events of 2020 has been the recognition of how important the waste and recycling sector, and the services they provide, are to households, businesses and across the community.

As restrictions begin to ease, and people start returning back to work and to entertainment precincts, rest assured our members are ready to resume their important waste and recycling collection services.

Cr Linda Scott: LGNSW has been calling for the NSW Government to urgently fund councils to help change the way we manage household rubbish and recycling through our Save Our Recycling campaign.

We’ve developed a comprehensive plan that includes a push for a Statewide education campaign to teach people practices that reduce contamination of recyclables, a commitment to regional waste management plans, investment in infrastructure and local and State Government recycled material procurement.

The State Government could fund this plan by reinvesting the $800 million it collects through the Waste Levy annually. Waste spikes coming out of COVID-19, along with impending waste export deadlines, means the need for action has never been more urgent.

Q. Do you see the pandemic having a major impact on the developing government regulations and policies being developed in regard to the waste and recycling industry?

Tony: Throughout the COVID pandemic, the NSW Government has done a great job in working with businesses and the waste management sector to help minimise the potential for adverse health impacts. My advice to the Government is to continue to do so, and continue to consult with the industry.

The varied state and territory border restrictions did however highlight the need for one decision from the Federal Government when it comes to regulating the waste and recycling industry. This mirrors the many concerns that those in the industry have with six states and two territories, all making a wide range of differing waste and recycling laws.

You’ll be able to hear more from Cr Linda Scott, Tony and Mike at the AWRE Online Event, where they will be speak on the ‘Covid Effect on the Waste Industry’ session on Wednesday 25 November 2020 alongside fellow panelist Jim Perry of Veolia. The panel will discuss the effects the pandemic has had on the waste and recycling industry as well as some of the successful solutions, learnings and opportunities presented as we move into the future.

The AWRE Online Event will run from 25-26 November 2020, giving the waste, recycling and resource recovery sector an online platform to re-connect with the industry. The program includes the chance to hear from 20+ industry professionals across 10 sessions, as well as product showcases and an online exhibition for your chance to discover a world of solutions. With live Q+A opportunities also available, the event provides an interactive and engaging experience no matter where you are in the world, all for free.

Haven’t registered yet? Simply click here to register free online.


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