Solid waste management worldwide prior COVID-19 was in a nutshell developing gradually towards prioritizing the upper part of the solid waste hierarchy pyramid and moving gradually to achieve the concepts and targets of circular economy. COVID-19 definitely had impact on everyone’s life and on various sectors including solid waste sector. Some of the key global impacts of COVID-19, are drastic decrease in prices of fuel and of various raw material, encouraging working remotely to reduce physical interaction, temporary closure of various sectors, and improvement of environmental conditions (decrease in pollution levels). Accordingly, this article will provide an overview of the impact of COVID-19 on municipal solid waste management, and on potential post impact of the COVID-19.
Impact of COVID-19 on Solid Waste Management Practices
The impact of COVID-19 on solid waste practices differed between countries worldwide. Some of the main practices performed by countries included,
- Continued with their business as usual model
- Stopped door to door collection which had a negative impact on sorting at source
- Limited their sorting and segregation practices, at the account of final disposal (incineration, and/or landfilling)
- Reduced their waste management staff at facilities and during collection, which reduced performance and recovery rates.
- Enhanced the personal safety requirements, which imposed an increase in the operation cost.
- Enhanced cleaning and disinfecting of vehicles, bins, and facilities, which imposed an increase in the operation cost.
- Encouraged using double plastic bags for waste as oppose to one bag (as oppose to previous initiatives towards reducing or banning of use of plastic bags).
- Temporarily closed recycling industries as part of lockdown measures, which affected material recovery negatively.
In general countries have used at least one of the above practices and in many cases a combination of the above. Eventually, the above mentioned list indicates that, the various measures taken either had cost implications, or where not in line with the international strategies related to waste management, such as reduction of final disposal and enhancing sorting at source and material recovery. Furthermore, drop of fuel and raw material prices, and the shut-down of industrial sector (including recycling industries in some countries), imposed negative impact on recovery and recycling of material, and on the economic model of recycled products in comparison with products from raw material.
However, on the bright side due to enhancement of working remotely, webinars have become more common and provided international accessibility and wider audience. This provided an international platform for sharing of knowledge, exchange of expertise and capacity building at low cost if any. So instead of having costly seminars (which might include travel and accommodation expenses, in addition to participation fees), webinars provided a simple platform for exchange and development of technical knowhow and capacity building. This may contribute to capitalizing on international expertise to develop waste management practices throughout the world.
Potential Impacts of Waste Management during the Post COVID-19 Period
Despite the impact of COVID-19 on Solid waste practices, it is less likely, that it will divert them away from the strategic targets and practices that it took decades to build-up for. In other words, the solid waste hierarchy pyramid, will remain an international priority (No final disposal will not be prioritized again), circular economy will remain a target for the countries that have endorsed it, and other strategic targets will remain as planned. Even though, some countries, that reduced their sorting at source practices, and material recovery, may need some time to regain their momentum and for citizens to overcome the psychological barriers (misleading correlation between such practices and spread of viruses) and get involved back again in such practices. Solid waste management schemes will remain to be driven as a function of the following factors, economic, social environmental, safety, and sustainability. However, the environmental sustainability, and safety factors will gain higher priority at the account of the remaining factors. COVID-19, has highlighted vulnerable aspects of the existing waste management infrastructure, that questions the safety of employees and of citizens, that questions robustness of the existing infrastructure and sustainability of the existing systems, and that raises environmental concerns regarding alternative schemes. COVID-19 raised concerns about the economic competitiveness of recycling products in light of drop of raw material prices.
Hence, the reasonable modifications to solid waste management as a post COVID-19 reform measures to the sector that may be anticipated are:
- Enhance automatization of facilities. This would reduce number of labor needed and thus the risk of spread of diseases and viruses
- Redevelop ventilation and sanitization mechanisms of facilities. This would ensure safety of staff and reduce risks of spread of diseases and viruses
- Types of personal protection gear. Both quality and type of personal protection gears may be reconsidered in some practices to account for virus transmission risks
- Development of alternative waste collection schemes. This may include considering automatized systems such as the more expensive vacuum collection system, or amending the door to door system to include bins or drop off areas.
- Enhance financial incentives for recycled products. This my include both financial and non-financial incentives to ensure, competitiveness of recycled material within the market upon sudden drop of prices of raw material
- Enhance safety of waste collection teams. Air circulation within the truck’s driver cab, safety of collection team including gear.
- Re-evaluate hygiene infrastructure at facilities. This should enable developing the infrastructure of facilities in a way that accounts for higher level of hygiene.
- Reconsider the existing financial models. This would enable having an interactive financial model that can account for sudden amendments in the system due to unforeseen events such as pandemics.