Trash collection is as reliable as a utility bill in most American towns and cities, and thoughts of pandemic trash piles are relics of a dirtier past. But the coronavirus outbreak has the potential to challenge those perceptions, and create unsanitary and potentially hazardous problems. Already, a few towns — including New York — are suspending or reducing some trash and recycling services to promote social distancing and prepare for lower staff levels that will stress collection and processing. These reductions won’t lead to a 1918-style trash crisis. But they are a reminder that the critical job of managing American waste is extremely vulnerable in a pandemic. Fortifying and protecting the companies, towns and workers who do this work must be a top priority for citizens and government alike.

Covid-19 poses several unique challenges for the U.S. waste collection and disposal industry and the 467,000 workers employed by it. Above all, it is likely to generate a surge in solid medical waste such as used surgical masks and empty IV bags. At the height of the epidemic in Wuhan, China, the city was producing 240 tons of medical waste a day, and the government had to deploy mobile treatment facilities to manage it. The good news is that, unlike China, the U.S. has sufficient capacity at specialized medical waste treatment centers to manage whatever is generated in hospitals and other medical facilities. In fact, it’s been managing medical wastes safely — including wastes far more hazardous than items carrying coronavirus — without much public notice, for years.

But there’s a related problem that isn’t so easily solved. Large-scale home quarantining, combined with large numbers of asymptomatic individuals, means that at least some of the medical waste generated in the U.S. (including all those masks) will be in home and office garbage and recycling bins. Nobody knows how much of a risk Covid-19 waste poses to sanitation workers. But it could be substantial: The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases reported last week that Covid-19 can remain infectious in aerosols for hours and on surfaces for days.

So far, there aren’t any American refuse and recycling workers publicly known to have the virus (a New York Department of Sanitation office worker was recently diagnosed). And, at the federal level at least, concern is low. Recently updated U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines suggest that waste workers handle office and home solid waste “with potential or known COVID-19 contamination like any other non-contaminated municipal waste.”

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Author: Adam Minter, Bloomberg
Photographer: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images