Before the start of the pandemic, approximately 40% of U.S. household waste was packaging and paper products such as plastic containers, aluminum cans, glass bottles and jars, newspaper and cardboard, according to the Product Stewardship Institute. Since the start of the pandemic, however, there’s 20-30% more trash and recycling coming out of households nationally, says Kate Bailey, policy and research director at Eco-Cycle based in Boulder.
At Eco-Cycle, the amount of single-use plastics such as take-out containers and bags hasn’t changed significantly, Bailey says. Although, there has been a larger-than-normal uptick in single-use beverage containers as summer approaches. Plus, smaller cardboard boxes associated with at-home delivery have increased as well.
TerraCycle, says Tom Szaky, CEO and founder, has seen a spike in both Zero Waste Boxes, which allow folks to mail in hard-to-recycle items (including PPE), and use of the company’s Loop e-commerce site, which sells packaged goods in durable, sanitized and reused containers.
While household recycling may be increasing, plastic and glass from businesses have significantly decreased, causing potential disruptions in the supply chains across the country. “We have a lot of manufacturing companies in this country that make toilet paper, that make cardboard boxes, that make glass bottles that depend on recycling,” Bailey says. “So we’re seeing this call from manufacturers to say, ‘We need you to please keep recycling because we need these raw materials.’”
And the industry has had to shift gears toward more household pick-up to keep up with demand, as some commercial recycling companies have had to close. “Since this increase in collections has been largely limited to residential locations as most businesses remain closed, many recycling haulers who exclusively operate in the commercial waste market have been forced to layoff employees,” Szaky says.
The pandemic comes at a time when the recycling industry was already struggling with historically low virgin plastic prices, made worse by the significant drop in oil and gas prices, and stymied international trading markets, as China banned recycling imports in 2018. There have been policy setbacks as well.