We Are About to Get Buried in Garbage

©. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Thanks to COVID-19 we are generating a lot more of it, and nobody wants to touch it. Time to try and go zero waste.

Where I live, the city is still pretending to recycle, even though we have known since China closed its doors to our trash a few years ago that 91 percent of the plastic we carefully separate and put on the curb is going to landfill or incinerators. The men in the green trucks are still coming around every Thursday morning. The City declared them an essential service and has asked us to bag and seal everything, even when it is going right into the garbage can.

Things still look normal, but a garbage crisis is coming, courtesy of COVID-19. Down the road in Hamilton, Ontario, the waste collection workers stopped work after learning that the virus can live on plastic surfaces for up to 3 days. They are demanding "adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, as well as sanitizer and wipes on waste collection vehicles." According to Saabira Chaudhuri in the Wall Street Journal, other workers are getting restive about this too.

Waste work­ers in Pitts­burgh on Wednes­day re­fused to do col­lec­tions af­ter they said two col­leagues had tested pos­i­tive for coro­n­avirus and the san­i­ta­tion de­part­ment hadn’t told them. In a live stream on Face­book, work­ers said they wanted masks and haz­ard pay. The may­or’s of­fice said the city is fol­low­ing Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion guid­ance and gives work­ers gloves.

Adam Minter writes in Bloomberg that there are serious issues for trash collection. Not with the tons of extra medical waste that is being generated; there is evidently "sufficient capacity at specialized medical waste treatment centers to manage whatever is generated in hospitals and other medical facilities."

Large-scale home quarantining, combined with large numbers of asymptomatic individuals, means that at least some of the medical waste generated in the U.S. (including all those masks) will be in home and office garbage and recycling bins. Nobody knows how much of a risk Covid-19 waste poses to sanitation workers.

The bigger problem is with our home pickup.

Waiting for a pickup

Waiting for a pickup/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Needless to say, nobody at the recycling centers wants to be picking through bottles and other stuff that everyone has been handling. No wonder it's all going to landfill. No wonder recycling is essentially dead and over for the duration.

And there is so much garbage. Emily Atkins reports in her newsletter, Heated, that people are generating a LOT more garbage. She notes that her own production of waste has increased. "My personal recycling bin has thus been filling up quickly with pink cans and cardboard boxes. Judging by the recycling dumpster at the back of my building, my neighbors have been experiencing a similar phenomenon. La Croix, clearly, is the beverage of the damned." She is not alone.

While commercial waste has decreased due to businesses shutting down, residential waste appears to be rising, quickly. As WasteDive reporter E.A. Crunden tells us, the country’s second-largest waste collection company Republic Services is anticipating a 30 percent increase in residential waste volumes—due in part to “excess material obtained through panic purchasing.”

Arlington, Virginia, is seeing increases of 30 percent in volume and is asking residents to put off spring cleaning. Some municipalities are asking people to stop putting out recyclables, to hang on to them until this is over. They don't say where to store them. Atkins says she wishes every city had a waste-to-energy plant "where our LaCroix boxes and extra take-out plastic could create energy." But that's worse than landfilling plastic, which when burned, puts out more CO2 per ton than coal, solving one crisis but exacerbating another one.

Now, more than ever, it's time to try to go zero waste.

kids cooking

© K Martinko – Kids hard at work in the kitchen, making 'potato chips'

This is why it is so important to do everything we can to reduce the amount of waste we are generating; there are going to be fewer people to pick it up and they are just going to be dumping it all in a hole. Everybody is cooking at home, but you don't have to buy over-packaged stuff; look at Melissa Breyer's post, Pandemic pantry: a list for eating well with humble ingredients. Or learn from Katherine Martinko who writes This pandemic is changing how my family eats. If you are going to do take-out, at least support your local restaurant that needs your business to survive. The big chains actually tend to use more plastic packaging; they can afford it.

This pandemic is changing a lot more than the way we eat; it's changing everything. I hope it will change the way we think about waste, now that people are realizing that it doesn't just disappear and magically turn into a bench.