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The importance of keeping waste moving during COVID-19

We are living in unprecedented times – now there’s an understatement if ever I heard one.

No one, or certainly very few people, could have predicted the scale and speed of the pandemic, nor the loss of life and global economic catastrophe which has struck the world as a result of it. But what we must remember is that it was only 100 years ago when the Spanish Flu killed more than 50 million people. The main killer then was not just the disease, but also the hygiene issues which occurred due to the build-up of waste. With so much of the world trying to recover from the Great War of 1914-1918, waste management was not overly high on any government agenda. How many people tragically succumbed to the Spanish Flu for no reason other than a lack of proper waste disposal? This is why we need to treat the coronavirus pandemic as seriously as it deserves, and why we should, as a nation, refuse to take our eye off of waste disposal and recycling.

Since lockdown restrictions began, Let’s Recycle It have noted a sharp downturn in the volumes of post-manufacturing polymers being recycled. These essential grades of plastic distributed all over the UK and Europe are typically used by the compounders who make the invaluable recycled pellet that is required for a circular economy. The manufacturers are desperately seeking plastic grades to compound and produce the personal protective equipment (PPE) and shielding screens that are essential for protection against COVID-19. The supply of these materials is simply not there due to the temporary closure of many industrial plants across the UK. Under normal circumstances, Let’s Recycle It Ltd channels these grades from waste streams back into manufacturing for a variety of products, such as piping, automotive parts, food containers and PPE. The main issue now is how to deal with the 30% increase in daily household waste cascading through the doors of Materials Recovering Facilities (MRFs), while demand for materials from manufacturing is plummeting.

With hindsight it might seem quite obvious; the population is on home lockdown, there has been several weeks of panic buying, people are eating and consuming more food and drink at home from supermarkets and industry has all but stopped. It is made worse that these changes happened more or less overnight. But were the effects on recycling, manufacturing and the economy unavoidable? It would have been against public interest to delay the lockdown to strategise for the changes in waste production and manufacturing demands.

So, what can the EA/DEFRA do to support the country and the economy, and help companies like Let’s Recycle It to keep recycling waste?

Whereas in the past plastic waste was not only processed in the UK but was also exported to mainland Europe, the travel restrictions and increased costs imposed by shipping lines have hindered this. Therefore, the EA has temporarily increased the tonnage waste management companies can hold on site, allowing more waste to be treated correctly and, most importantly, kept off our streets.

This also means that landlords cannot object to or turn down requests for tonnage increases.

In addition, there is immediate consultation between DEFRA and the government to measure the dependence the nation has on its waste industry workers. As key workers during this pandemic, we must give thanks and credit to the frontline waste operatives who facilitate the increased collections on the streets of Britain. Without these individuals, the streets could become a breeding ground for other unwelcome diseases, such as typhoid and cholera, which would only cause additional stress and strain on an already overloaded NHS.

In my humble opinion, we all have a duty to act responsibly; we should maintain social distancing, look after those in our communities who can’t look after themselves and prioritise the appropriate management and disposal of all waste. What we as a collective do now will affect the generations to come for many decades.

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