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The impact of Covid-19 on municipal waste management

By Platform

On 6 April 2021 the Association of Cities and Regions for sustainable resource management (ACR+) published a report on ‘The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on municipal waste management systems’ showing how waste generation and the organisation of waste services were impacted during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic that struck Europe in Spring 2020.

Between July and October 2020 ACR+ conducted an on-line survey targeted to municipal authorities and waste operators to gauge the extent to which Covid-19 forced changes into waste systems, gather data on the evolution of collected quantities and identify best practices adopted across the EU to respond to the health crisis while keeping prevention and recycling on the agenda. Public authorities representing 19,4 million European citizens in very different territories, from large cities to rural areas and tourism hotspots, took the survey.

This allowed ACR+ to observe a few trends and how the crisis moved along the value chain, starting from collection systems to reach other players such as recyclers. Waste experts welcomed the publication of the report, which represents ‘a most valuable tool in supporting waste management possible disruptions due to the pandemic emergency’ according to Massimiliano di Mattia from the Tuscany Regional Resource Efficiency Agency (Italy).

Adapting waste services to lockdown measures

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As soon as Europeans were constrained at home to flatten the curve and keep health systems afloat, ACR+ started to gather information concerning regulations and guidelines on waste management in Covid-19 times being adopted throughout the continent and to look at how waste practitioners were reacting to the emergency. Based on the replies to the survey, ACR+ could better capture and assess the widespread efforts that were deployed, among others, to make sure that workers in the sector operated in compliance with health and safety protocols and that citizens relied on clear and effective communication with regard to waste services provided during the pandemic.

Moreover, while the survey identified some challenges for collection and sorting services, such as staff shortages, temporarily disruption or slowing down of collection frequencies for certain waste streams, physical access limitations to civic amenity sites and safe handling of waste from households positive to Covid-19, it also proved useful to detect key success factors for pandemic waste management. Among these, Hugh Coughlan from the Eastern Midlands Waste Region (Ireland) underlines ‘the strength of established structures, arrangements and relationships’ as the real enabler of a ‘robust, reliable and resilient’ response of the sector, which ‘ensured that waste as an essential service was maintained during the period’.

Flexibility to ensure the optimal continuation of priority services

Used mask on the floor
The trait common to all respondents that performed very well during the first  European lockdowns of 2020 is indeed flexibility. Public authorities and waste  operators that adjusted successfully to the new pandemic context are those  that kept business-as-usual collection schedules and that continued to  privilege door-to-door collection systems, which also minimise interactions  with users, while maintaining or even increasing their sorting performance

This trend was particularly registered where, given the generalised decrease  of commercial waste generation due to Covid-19 restrictions, staff and  resources could be flexibly reallocated to high priority collection services, such  as those of residual waste, food waste, medical waste or residual waste from  contaminated households as well as to enforcement actions against fly- tipping. 

Asked about adaptation and flexibility Françoise Bonnet (Secretary  General, ACR+) recalls that ‘during the first month of the pandemic outbreak,  decentralised authorities had to adapt their services to ensure the safety of  their employees, and often to deal with severe staff shortages. The lesson we  have learnt is that if priority is to be given to certain fractions, or if interaction  with citizens is to be limited, it is essential to keep separate collection services in place’.

Interreg Europe Covid-19 call for additional activities

Recyling bins in a street
The coronavirus public health emergency continues all over Europe and the world. It does not only have consequences on our lives and the economy: it also affects the implementation of regional development policies. Therefore, in addition to the measures already taken in 2020, the Interreg Europe monitoring committee has decided to launch a call for additional activities to further help approved projects, including those in the field of waste management, to address this unprecedented crisis.The exceptional measure agreed upon by the monitoring committee will make possible to continue exchanging views on the way Covid-19 is impacting the policy challenges dealt with by approved projects and on measures that can facilitate the recovery and enable the implementation of regional development policies in pandemic times.

Launched on 1 April and open until 2 July 2021, the call represents an excellent opportunity for projects that designed and tested solutions for effective and safe waste management during the crisis to keep on disseminating the knowledge they have gained and transferring it within their networks.

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Credits: Photos by Jilbert EbrahimiManuel Peris TiradoRobin Benzrihem and Alfonso Navarro from Unsplash