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COVID-19: The impact of the pandemic on the waste sector

By Platform

The COVID-19 pandemic has already had a tremendous impact on the waste sector. Public authorities and municipal waste operators had to rapidly adapt their waste management systems and procedures during the lockdowns.

The sector had to ensure the protection of its customers and employees while maintaining the crucial services of waste collection and treatment. At the same time, in some cases more waste has been generated. Many people had more time at hand and cleared out their houses, cellars and attics. In Germany, this resulted in long lines in front of recycling centres accepting bulky waste and waste electrical & electronic equipment (WEEE). In Belgium, the collection containers for second-hand textiles had been closed and people had to keep the used clothes at home. And everywhere in Europe, the illegal dumping of waste increased, and an entire new waste stream entered streets and household bins: personal protective equipment (PPE).


Photo credits: Andrés Arranz Fotografia - Coronabasura

ACR+ is an international network of cities and regions, partner in several Interreg Europe projects (INTHERWASTE, WINPOL, EURE, SMART WASTE and LCA4Regions). For already several months ACR+ has been mapping how public authorities in Europe and beyond reacted and adapted their waste management systems to the urgency created by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Astrid Severin, Thematic Expert for Environment & resource efficiency at the Interreg Europe Policy Learning Platform spoke to Paolo Marengo, Program Manager at ACR+, about the impact of COVID-19 on waste collection and management. 

Astrid: What was the impact of COVID-19 on waste collection?

Paolo: Many countries had to reallocate manpower and resources to guarantee the waste collection services during the pandemic. To this end, priorities had to be set on specific waste fractions for example first guaranteeing the collection of residual waste, then bio-waste, then packaging waste, etc. 

In addition to the COVID-19 safety restrictions, this often meant that household recycling centres (bring centres) or civic amenity sites were not considered a priority and have been closed. At the same time, people took advantage to get rid of old furniture, clothes, electronics and complained because they could not bring their waste to the recycling centres. Unfortunately, the closure of bring centres often led to an increase of illegal disposal of waste which has been reported from the Netherlands, Belgium, United Kingdom and Portugal. Hence, a lot of municipalities put efforts went into communication, asking citizens to keep specific items such as batteries, WEEE, lamps at home until after the pandemic. 

Astrid: Did the composition of waste change during the lockdown? 

Paolo: We assume that it did but this aspect needs more monitoring, more data. That is why we are launching a survey to get more information from the municipalities and waste operators. 

What we can say already is that many touristic areas experienced a sharp decrease in waste generation. In Barcelona (Cataluña), waste generation dropped by 25%. Also, the quality and rate of separate collection worsened as in some cases the separate collection services have stopped due to COVID-19. 

The City of Milan, however, succeeded in keeping a high separation rate despite the fact that the area was hard hit by the virus. Without the tourists and many business activities, the total waste generation in Milan had reduced and the city managed to reallocate staff towards the separate collection. In non-touristic cities, reallocation of employees was often not possible.

Astrid: What have been the main changes for waste treatment in times of corona? 

Paolo: There are really three points that I would like to mention. Firstly, in order to ensure the safety of plant operators and to reduce the ‘infectious load’ of the waste, several waste treatment plants have quasi 'quarantined' the incoming waste for variable periods of time. 

For instance, the Portuguese waste treatment company LIPOR in Porto has introduced such an additional 72-hours storage for household waste before starting the waste treatment. To be able to implement this additional storage time, some regions across Europe needed a derogation of the regulation which has been granted very fast. With this change, the mechanical-biological treatment (MBT) and sorting plants could continue working normally. 

The second issue relates to the waste produced by infected people who have been quarantined at home. According to the World Health Organization and other national healthcare institutions, such waste should be considered hazardous (infectious) waste and in theory, it should be treated as such. In practice, local authorities have been required to treat it as mixed waste implementing specific safety measures for collection, such as using two sealed bags and, in some countries, storing the waste for 72 hours before putting it out. These precautions have been normally required also for all PPE. But as you can imagine, these procedures are not always easy to be implemented and verified. 

Third, in some European countries, MBT plants have been shut down due to the pandemic, especially during lockdown, and the mixed household waste has been landfilled or incinerated. This is not in line with the European aspirations of a circular economy.

Astrid: What happened with the raw material for the recycling plants such as glass, paper and cardboard? A partner of the Interreg Europe project BIOREGIO reported that the local biogas and composting plant in Lahti (Finland) encountered difficulties in obtaining enough input material as many businesses and restaurants had shut down. What happened to the value chains of recycling plants? 

Paolo: Glass and paper recycling were definitely impacted. The value chains have been interrupted and the reduced collection services also meant reduced quantities of recyclable material. A lot of the recycling plants have been closed during the lockdown and the different waste fractions remained at the transfer stations. 

In France, the organization in charge of the Extended Producer Responsibility for household packaging and graphic paper, CITEO, had reported that 97% of the sorting centres have resumed their activities on 25 May. Nevertheless, some of the centres still have reduced activity, mainly due to a decrease in incoming quantities following the cessation of selective collection in their area. In addition, the rules of safety distance also meant that less employees are working on the sorting belts and throughput of production decreases. In general, automated sorting has been the preferred option during times of corona.

Astrid: What are the next steps in your studies of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on municipal waste management systems?

Paolo: ACR+ has recently launched a survey to gather more data from municipal and local authorities or their waste operators. The results of the survey will contribute to a better understanding of the crisis, to identifying effective solutions and to increasing the resilience of municipal solid waste collection systems. We aim to identify interesting practices and to analyse the key factors that help increasing the capacity of waste management systems in times of a health crisis while keeping prevention and recycling high on the agenda. 

We hope that the waste management experts in the Interreg Europe community will share their experience about the consequences of the crisis on their waste system with us and complete an online survey. The survey is open until the end of July 2020.

This survey will lead to the publication of an aggregated analysis, accompanied by highlights on specific practices. Moreover, we are envisaging a joint event with the Interreg Europe Policy Learning Platform to present the results of the survey.