Since March 2020, when most shelter-in-place orders began, sanitation workers have noted massive increases in municipal garbage and recyclables. For example, in cities like Chicago, workers have seen up to 50% more waste. According to the Solid Waste Association of North America, U.S. cities saw a 20% average increase in municipal solid waste and recycling collection from March into April 2020. Increased trash can be attributed partly to spring cleaning, but most of it is due to people spending greater time at home. Restaurants struggling to survive under COVID-19 restrictions are contributing to the rise in plastic and paper waste with takeout packaging.

Although higher volumes of recyclables are being set on the curb, budget deficits are squeezing recycling programs. Many municipalities are struggling with multimillion-dollar shortfalls. Some communities, such as Rock Springs, Wyoming, and East Peoria, Illinois, have cut recycling programs. And these stresses are testing a business already faced uncertainty. The global recycling economy has suffered since 2018 as first China and then other Asian nations banned imports of low-quality scrap – often meaning improperly cleaned food packaging and poorly sorted recyclable materials. As in any business, the value of raw recyclables is linked to supply and demand. Without demand from nations like China, which formerly took up to 700,000 tons of U.S. scrap annually, recyclers have scrambled to stay in business.

The pandemic has boosted prices for some materials. One industry leader told us that between February and May 2020, prices doubled for recycled paper and tripled for recycled cardboard. These shifts reflect higher demand for tissue products and shipping packaging under shelter-in-place orders. However, he also reported that prices for the most-recycled categories of reclaimed plastics – PET (#1) and PE (#2 and #4) – were at 10-year lows. An influx of cheap oil has driven the raw material cost of oil-derived virgin plastics to their lowest levels in decades, outcompeting recycled feedstocks.

Ideally, revenues from recycling offset municipalities’ costs for collecting and disposing of solid wastes. However, given worker safety concerns, low market prices for scrap materials, a slowed economy and cheaper alternatives for disposal, many communities and businesses across the U.S. have temporarily suspended collection of recyclables and bottle deposits. Meanwhile, as the commercial sector slowed, the distribution of waste generation changed. As people have spent more time producing waste at home, waste collectors implemented new procedures to protect their employees from infection.

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Authors: Brian J. Love, Julie Rieland, The Conversation
Image: David Rieland, CC BY-ND