Medical masks arranged on a blue background.

Industry group SWANA is working with the federal government to supply free face coverings for the waste and recycling industry. | beton studio/Shutterstock

Coronavirus infections among workers have caused a MRF to shutter and delayed collection of recyclables elsewhere. The federal government and one state are working to provide masks and funding to help programs cope.

The coronavirus pandemic has been impacting U.S. recycling programs since mid-March, when widespread stay-at-home orders and other regulations began to transform daily life across the country. The recycling sector faced material volume changes and operational impacts to accommodate safety measures, at times leading programs to suspend services.

In recent weeks, however, the materials recovery sector has seen more reported virus infections among its workforce, leading to service disruptions as facilities shut down for cleaning and workers are quarantined.

As of June 30, the U.S. had reported more than 2.5 million COVID-19 cases and 126,369 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The past week has brought record-breaking numbers of daily new infections in the U.S.

Recycling facility outbreaks

In Canada, an early-June coronavirus outbreak at an Edmonton, Alberta MRF caused the facility to shut down for two weeks.

The facility is owned by the city and operated by contractor Suez. It closed on June 9, according to Global News Canada, following an outbreak of more than a dozen COVID-19 cases stemming from contact at the MRF.

The recycling center closed for two weeks, during which time Suez “completed an intensive cleaning and disinfection of the facility,” Global News reported. The MRF reopened on June 24.

Meanwhile, a MRF in Marin County, Calif. north of San Francisco on June 22 reported 43 employees tested positive for COVID-19 during the prior two weeks.

The MRF operator, Marin Sanitary Service, said employees who tested positive were quarantining for 10 days and were only returning to work if they exhibited no symptoms for the last three days of quarantine.

Local health officials visited the MRF and were “not concerned about our facility being at risk for infecting others,” according to Marin Sanitary Service. “They felt that much of the infection was most likely due to some recent spikes in infection throughout the community.”

The majority of infections were among sortation workers, not drivers or other public-facing employees, according to the MRF operator.

Elsewhere in California, curbside collection was suspended for a day in Lompoc, Calif., after a driver tested positive for COVID-19. The city announced all drivers would be tested before returning to work, and collection resumed quickly thereafter when the city received updated guidance from county officials.

“Moving forward, trash, recycling and green waste pickup will continue on its regular schedule unless test results require staff to quarantine,” the city noted in a statement.

In Columbia, Mo., staffing shortages that began over a month ago continue to impact recycling collection service.

The city in May temporarily halted collection because multiple collection employees had been exposed to the coronavirus and were placed in quarantine. Last week, the city said those impacts are ongoing, noting that the “lack of sufficient staffing” is preventing the solid waste department from collecting both trash and recycling. City crews will prioritize trash collection during the disruption, not collecting any recyclables this week. Recycling is slated to return next week.

Elsewhere in the U.S., Waste Connections suspended residential collection in Hillsborough County, Fla. due to a shortage of drivers caused by COVID-19. And the city of Baltimore suspending recycling collection for three weeks starting June 19 after 15 sanitation workers tested positive for the coronavirus.

Support for recycling sector

As the pandemic continues to impact recycling, a handful of initiatives have been organized to ease the burden on recycling systems.

In North Carolina, the state’s environmental authority has earmarked money specifically for recycling operators facing struggles from the coronavirus.

The Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service recently began accepting applications for a COVID-19 Recycling Relief Grant program.

“Limited grant funding is available to purchase equipment and/or resources to support residential recycling programs that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the agency wrote.

The request for proposals explains that residential programs have seen an influx of material as more people are staying home, meaning many programs have had to alter services.

Projects eligible for funding include efforts to add recycling carts to local programs or bring on more containers to increase drop-off services. Money is also available to bolster outreach materials to inform residents about program changes and supply personal protective equipment (PPE) to recycling sector employees.

Meanwhile, a national group is working with the federal government to supply free face coverings for the waste and recycling industry.

The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) last week began accepting orders from waste and recycling organizations for the protective equipment, which will be provided free of charge by the federal government.

SWANA said it is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and other federal entities on the project, which is open to waste and recycling operations in the U.S., as well as equipment suppliers and other companies that support the industry. The effort is part of a wider federal move to provide masks to a swath of critical industries beyond the health care sector.

The program is taking applications through July 17. Masks will be shipped roughly three weeks after July 21, according to SWANA.

A new survey published this week by the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) reiterated the scope of impact COVID-19 has had on waste and recycling operations. According to the industry group, the results mirrored other recent surveys on short- and long-term coronavirus impacts, with haulers having the most impact, residential waste seeing the largest volume increase and staffing challenges creating the biggest short-term hurdles.

Among other findings, the survey revealed that two-thirds of its nearly 400 respondents reported “moderate to severe operations impacts due to COVID-19 restrictions.”

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