By understanding the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can work as an industry to establish new processes and values that will support our mission for efficiency, safety and sustainability.
By Graham Rihn

Waste volumes are drastically shifting for some businesses in COVID-19. Toters are great for a wide-range of waste needs and can help if a business generates varying amounts of waste.Photos courtesy of RoadRunner Recycling.

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe and placed communities and cities on lockdown, volumes of waste and recycling inevitably experienced volatility. While some industries like hospitality, K-12 and higher education, retail and restaurants experienced nearly depleted waste volumes due to lack of activity, essential industries like health services and multi-family properties saw significant spikes in volumes. This level of variability presented our industry with new and unprecedented challenges as we worked to maintain exemplary service through an unpredictable pandemic.

As we begin acclimating to the ‘new normal’, there are several key learnings and best practices businesses and industries at large should take into consideration.

#1: Waste and Recycling Services Need to Be Considered Essential
During the COVID-19 crisis, businesses and their employees that were deemed essential received vital protection, both from a financial standpoint and a medical one. However, for industries that did not receive this government-backed label, their employees on the frontlines were left vulnerable and unprotected. Given this, one of the biggest and most lasting takeaways from the COVID-19 crisis is the crucial need for waste and recycling haulers to be deemed essential workers.

For our customers, waste and recycling services are absolutely essential to their operations and overall success. However, far too often, haulers on the frontlines were not provided with the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) despite the increased risks associated with their duties. This resulted in many industry employees across the nation going on strike. While it can be time-consuming to source appropriate materials for haulers, it is still vital to ensure these employees remain healthy, both physically and mentally, when working through a global health crisis. One of the best ways to do so is by providing peace of mind in the form of guaranteed PPE and appropriate health guidelines for the job.

This is especially urgent considering the ongoing effect COVID-19 has had on the type of waste haulers must handle, placing them at advanced risk. As citizens and healthcare workers alike leveraged disposable masks and gloves to protect themselves from the virus, those items inevitably ended up in garbage and recycling bins. For the haulers who are required to handle this potentially contaminated waste, PPE could be a lifesaving solution for themselves and their families.

The need for waste and recycling disposal to be deemed essential is only going to become more important as the country reopens and as business’ waste volumes and service needs increase or evolve over time. Furthermore, should we be hit with a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall, or are ever faced with a similar crisis in the future, I am hopeful that our industry will commit to protect and support employees on the frontlines.

#2: Recycling Commodity Prices Have Evolved
Due to the drastic waste volume shift experienced throughout the pandemic, certain recyclable commodity prices have experienced volatility. For instance, prices for materials like mixed paper were historically kept low as the industry had a surplus of recyclable inventory readily available. But as the current COVID-19 situation has caused a significant drop in volumes across the board, low supplies have caused the prices of these commodities to rise 50 to 75 percent over the last 60 to 90 days.

The spike proved that some of the most important materials that have been in low supply throughout the pandemic are manufactured from recycled materials. Fibrous material prices (including cardboard, office paper, mixed paper and more) began tentatively lowering at the end of June, but it is still not clear when plastics can expect a similar decrease. However, what has become clear is that the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on commodity prices for the foreseeable future and businesses should adjust their raw materials budgets accordingly.

A clean-stream approach to recycling, where materials are sorted in bins like this, can help ensure 99.9 percent of materials are efficiently recycled.

#3: Organizations Must Have Plans in Place for Reopening and Beyond
The COVID-19 crisis has been eye-opening, providing valuable insight into our industry and the challenges and opportunities service providers face. Now, as states begin reopening procedures, it is critical for industry leaders to leverage what we have learned in order to safely and effectively transition to a “new normal.” One such way we can adapt is to improve service flexibility to ensure that we are supporting our customers’ efforts to get back to business without making them incur costly fees for any necessary adjustments.

While commercial waste and recycling typically are not thought of as ‘self-service’ industries, the pandemic has shed light on how this thinking must change. In order to expedite service updates, we must provide customers with the tools and technology to remain responsive to fluctuating variables in their business and in the world. This requires a digital interface, web portal or app where customers can adjust their service levels—such as service frequency and container quantities or sizes—to accurately reflect their real-time output. By providing this technology to customers, they can be empowered to better manage their own waste and recycling procedures, creating a useful and personalized experience as they prepare to reopen their businesses.

For instance, we have seen a spike of customers in hard-hit industries be forced to adjust service levels seemingly overnight, and 90 percent of this activity took place offline through phone calls. This high volume of service adjustments could have been facilitated more efficiently if a self-service digital interface or app was available to make the requests in a timely manner. By moving this process from offline to online, customers can ensure their service levels meet their changing needs while simultaneously creating more time in the day to focus on their business.

Turning Takeaways into Action
Having been operating within the confines of the COVID-19 pandemic for several months now, we have gained a deep understanding of the crisis’ impact on our customers and our industry as a whole. While reopening may be underway, the waste and recycling business might never return to normal operations. As companies continue to allow employees to work remotely and consumers gauge their comfortability with going about their former lifestyles, we will continue to see the industry in flux. It is up to us as waste and recycling service providers to remain flexible and continue evolving our offerings in order to keep up with the times.

My hope is that by understanding the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can work as an industry to establish new processes and values that will support our mission for efficiency, safety and sustainability. We must continue to meet customers’ needs while protecting our frontline workers, no matter what the future might have in store.

Graham Rihn is the founder and CEO of RoadRunner Recycling (Pittsburgh, PA). The company is on a mission to elevate recycling in a world dominated by waste. RoadRunner provides custom recycling and waste solutions engineered to improve waste stream management, serving thousands of commercial businesses from more than 20 industries, including healthcare, manufacturing, education, retail and hospitality. For more information, e-mail or visit