Coronavirus: The challenge for waste and recycling services

This is a fast-moving issue and should be read as correct at the date of publication (06.04.20).

Waste collection is a core public service. There will be continuing demands on household waste and clinical waste management in the coming weeks. The coronavirus pandemic presents a significant logistical challenge. 

This Insight looks at waste-related questions and Government and industry responses.

The waste and recycling challenge

In the next three months, the waste industry estimates that it will need to deal with: 

  • over 7 million tonnes of waste from UK households; and 
  • up to 10 million tonnes of commercial and industrial waste (including clinical waste). 

The sector employs over 100,000 people. Like many industries, there are staffing pressures due to illness and employees self-isolating. Decisions about core service prioritisation are already being taken.

Is the waste industry allowed to operate? 

In short, yes. There are some restrictions to services for the public. Waste management companies are not on the Government’s list of non-essential businesses that have been ordered to close. Waste disposal workers are on the Government’s list of critical key workers that can access childcare provision. Therefore, Government directions do not prevent the waste industry from continuing to operate. 

Staff illness and self-isolation are a further complication. The industry is currently contingency planning for 15-30% of its workforce being off work through illness. Some local authority waste services have been scaled back. Social distancing restrictions have also meant closure of provisions such as recycling centres. 

The Government says that it is discussing contingency planning for waste management with: 

  • the waste industry, 
  • local authorities,
  • the Environment Agency, and 
  • other relevant parties. 

Will household waste still be collected? 

In England there is a duty for a “waste collection authority” to collect “household waste”. This is set out in section 45 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. In practice this duty falls to the district, metropolitan or city council, or unitary authority. This Act also provides a duty to collect “at least two types of recyclable waste.” This provision does not have to be met if “the cost of doing so would be unreasonably high.” 

The Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee has said

“If staff absence becomes quite high then it could be that the recycling collections may have to stop in order to make sure the residual collections keep going.”  

Some local authorities are reported to have scaled back on recycling collections. 

The ESA is the UK’s resource and waste management trade association. In a letter to the public the ESA said that,

“any disruption to recycling services will be a last resort and, if this is unavoidable, we must not allow it to break our national recycling habit in the long term.”  

It also said that it is possible some street cleaning and litter removal services may also to be temporarily suspended to prioritise household collections. 

Local authorities are ultimately responsible for household waste and recycling services and people are advised to check with their relevant local authority for up-to-date information on collection arrangements.

Should households with possible coronavirus do anything different with their waste? 

Government “guidance for households with possible coronavirus (COVID-19) infection” states that personal waste (such as used tissues) and disposable cleaning cloths can be stored securely within disposable rubbish bags. These bags should be placed into another bag, tied securely and kept separate from other waste. This should be put aside for at least 72 hours before being put in the usual external household waste bin. 

Where waste has already been designated as “clinical waste”, clinical waste procedures should already be in place that consider the potential for it to be infectious. Those procedures can be followed as normal.

Will household waste recycling centres (HWRCs) stay open? 

The Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee reports the vast majority of HWRCs have now closed. The Chartered Institution of Wastes Management has expressed concern that 

“most HWRCs are not laid out in such a way that social distancing can be effectively maintained, putting both operatives and members of the public at risk.”  

It would like to work with industry and Government to develop a protocol around safe opening for some strategic sites. 

What are the implications for recycled materials?

If recycling services are reduced then more recyclable materials will instead go to incineration or landfill. Over a prolonged period this may affect the Government’s ability to meet recycling targets. This would hamper its ambition to move towards a more circular economy. 

The Recycling Association has warned that a reduction in recycled materials collected could lead to a shortage in fibres used normally to manufacture cardboard boxes used for food and medical supplies distribution. 

Can the waste industry cope with a rise in clinical waste? 

According to the Sanitary Medical Disposal Services Association, there is “some spare capacity in the system”. Old facilities capable of treating medical waste may be brought back online. New facilities may be brought online earlier than planned. 

Press reports quote a government spokesperson, stating

“We have sufficient capacity to deal with increased clinical waste disposal. The NHS is coordinating the disposal process and we have clear, sensible contingency plans in place.” 

Can refuse collectors work safely? 

The Waste Industry Safety and Health (WISH) Forum has issued an Information Note on Covid-19 and waste management activities. This note states: 

Obeying 2-metre Social Distancing may not be reasonably practicable for personnel who work together in the cabs of some waste collection vehicles. However, as an essential service it is important waste collection operations continue. What is reasonably practicable will depend on the specific circumstances of each collection methodology and type and each collection area.  

The Unite and GMB unions have raised concerns. In particular, they are concerned about social distancing inside waste vehicle cabs and about a lack of provision of protective equipment. GMB has written to the Local Government Association asking it for clearer guidelines on social distancing guidance for staff in refuse collection services. 


About the author: Louise Smith is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in science and the environment.

Photo: “New Wheelie Bin plus caddy” by Smabs Sputzer (1956-2017) is licensed under CC BY 2.0.