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Resuming waste management services under COVID-19 restrictions

5th May 2020 Posted by

Despite the massive changes to our normal way of lives, the waste sector has continued to deliver its core services, day in and day out. Results from ADEPT for the last full week of April 2020 show that 100% of residual and clinical waste services continue to be maintained, as well as almost 90% of food waste collections. Dry recycling services are operating at 99%, whilst street sweeping, bulky waste and other services are all running in many areas and the trend of bringing back suspended services continues. The sector has demonstrated its resilience through the first phase of the COVID-19 crisis, but as we start to restore services, we enter a more complicated and potentially conflicted set of phases.

This has become particularly apparent with Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRC), almost all of which were closed at the start of the first phase of lockdown. They remained closed while the sector focused its resources on maintaining essential services at the kerbside. This helped to ensure that people could stay safely at home and stop the spread of the virus. This principle was the right one and remains as true today, as it was at the start of the lockdown. However, over the last few weeks there have been calls to reopen sites and allow access to the public. This raises further questions, not only about when they should be reopened, but also when the wider services they provide might also be resumed.

SUEZ recycling and recovery UK published a short report in April outlining what might be an essential journey when visiting a HWRC and considerations for these sites to reopen. Since that report was issued, SUEZ has continued work on the topic, through contributing to documents from government and others, and its own trials at a number of sites to see what is feasible. This additional work has culminated in a second report entitled Practical considerations and outline process considerations for HWRC reopening during COVID-19 restrictions, which sets out in more detail what might need to be addressed when they are reopened.

The report itself considered two main areas:

  • What wastes might be posing a risk of injury, health impact, or harm to householders if held at home, and should therefore be considered as essential waste to be taken to a HWRC?
  • How HWRC sites that do reopen might need to address their operating conditions on-site to ensure social distancing is maintained and everybody on site is kept safe.

SUEZ approaches matters such as these through a process of detailed legal, technical and operational review, but also seeks to explore context and additional opinions through wider conversations. As part of this process, we explored the state of all services and the aspects relevant to HWRCs in a recent webinar, with me and two local authority representatives: Kristy Spindler from South Gloucestershire, and Trevor Nicoll from Cambridge City Council and South Cambridge District Council. The webinar was ably hosted by Dr Adam Read and attracted 64 Local Authority representatives, among many others.

The speakers highlighted the progress being made across the full range of household services, after which, we commenced a series of polls. These gathered feedback from webinar audience on issues related to the planned recovery of all services including those provided by HWRCs. Firstly, we explored which organisation, from Defra, to LA members and officers, and service deliverers (contractors) should define essential wastes. The poll revealed most of the audience (83%) thought Defra should define essential wastes, with 7% voting for LA members and 10% for LA officers.

The panel fully agreed that Defra should define the essential waste services and welcomed confirmation that it should not be the service deliverer (contractor) – an option that received no votes in the poll. Secondly, we asked which two of five key services were most essential for health and safety protection in the home. Unsurprisingly, 98% of the votes cast indicated that residual/food and clinical waste were most essential, with only 2% suggesting bulky waste and no votes for garden or electronic and electrical waste (WEEE). This fully conforms to our views, which were detailed in the second report, published to coincide with the webinar.

Having established in the poll voting, what the audience considered essential and having details from the ADEPT survey that these services had been, and continue to be, successfully delivered at the kerbside, we then explored what suspended services would be prioritised for re-instatement when resources allowed. Votes were split: 34% voting for HWRCs, 25% for kerbside bulky collections and 22% for food waste collections, whilst only 16% voted for green waste and 3% for bring banks. The audience was then asked if HWRCs could be safely reopened, what services should be provided. The votes cast were split. Essential wastes only received 39% of the votes whilst the same number supported ‘designated other streams’, but only if the trip was justified with the need to access the HWRCs with an essential waste. Only 23% of the votes cast suggested that sites should be opening for any wastes that had previously been accepted.

Our final poll question simply asked that given the current status of kerbside collections, and in context of some of the previous discussions and poll questions in the webinar, ‘Do HWRCs need to open to provide essential waste services?’ An overwhelming majority (86%) of those who voted said ‘no’ and this fully conforms to our own thinking as outlined in our updated document.

The sector has traditionally sought to define essential wastes by material type, like residual or food waste, and this is logical given how services are operationally delivered. However, it’s important that in this process of restarting services, we consider those elements of society where essential may have a very different meaning. For instance, for the approximately 1.8 million people who are currently being shielded and have been asked not to leave their homes, opening a HWRC will not be very useful. Around 27% of households don’t have access to a car and so cannot easily access HWRCs. Furthermore, over 11 million people with disabilities in the UK will need assistance when on the HWRC site, but due to social distancing won’t be able to receive the normal level of support. Most HWRCs will, for safety purposes, not allow non-vehicular access to the site and, as mentioned earlier, for reasons of social distancing, the normal assistance provided on site will not be available either.

When we are pondering whether to restart a service or open a HWRC, we should carefully consider whether we are using the resources available in a way that reflects not only essential wastes, but also how these resources meet the needs of specific parts of society where ‘essential’ may have a very different – and possibly more important – impact. Any future guidance from government on essential wastes and HWRC reopening must reflect this important nuance.

Our sector has done brilliantly to date in adapting to the challenges raised by COVID-19. All those involved in the continued maintenance of front line services and in planning the resumption of suspended services, need to be diligent in their approach. They’ll need to support essential waste services and also those sections of society where the essential service of waste management needs resources delivered in very different ways.

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