The Covid Crisis Has Transformed Into a Garbage Crisis. Recycling operations across Brazil have been shut down for months. A junkyard in Uganda is running out of reusable plastics. Disposable gloves and face shields are building up at a river mouth in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital.
During the epidemic, the increased use of plastics and packaging resulted in mountains of waste. However, because of the fear of Covid-19, some reusable materials have been discarded or burned instead of being recycled.
At the same time, solid waste experts claim that a large amount of personal protective equipment has been misclassified as hazardous. Because that material isn’t usually allowed in the regular trash, a lot of it ends up in fire pits or as litter.
Experts argue that in both situations, an early concern of the coronavirus spreading quickly through surfaces has generated a difficult-to-shake stigma around touching perfectly harmless rubbish. Since then, many experts and government agencies have discovered that the concern about surface transmission was greatly exaggerated.
“Because there isn’t a route of transmission through recycling, for example,” Anne Woolridge, who leads a working group on health care waste for the International Solid Waste Association, said, “we’re still finding things being burned rather than recycled because people are afraid” of surface transmission.
Dr. Woolridge stated that before the pandemic, the image of gloves and masks covering the world would have been inconceivable. “However, because everyone is claiming that anything related to the epidemic is medical waste, it has put a strain on the system,” she added.
Stoppages in recycling
Last year, recycling rates declined substantially all throughout the world, owing in part to lower demand from manufacturers. In many nations where manual sorting still dominates the recycling sector rather than machinery, in-person employment has been halted due to virus concerns.
According to Abrelpe, a national association of sanitation firms in Brazil, the creation of recyclable material in cities increased by 25% in 2020, owing mostly to an increase in online shopping. However, numerous cities’ recycling systems halted operations for several months due to concerns about surface transmission.
This had obvious human and environmental consequences. According to recent research, during the suspension period, at least 16,000 tonnes less recyclable material was in circulation than usual, resulting in a monthly economic loss of roughly $1.2 million for waste-picker associations. According to another analysis, a month of suspensions was a squandered opportunity to save more than 152,000 households money on electricity.
“The suspension exposed our system’s flaws,” said Liane Nakada, a researcher at the University of Campinas and a co-author of the second report. They were the exception since she and her husband kept their recycling at home for months to avoid incorrect disposal.
A global schism
Recycling rates in industrialized economies are gradually returning to pre-Covid levels, according to James D. Michelsen, a solid waste expert at the International Finance Corporation.
“The numbers are returning to normal, and we’re shifting our focus away from Covid and toward circularity, sustainability, and plastics recycling,” Mr. Michelsen said.
Lockdowns and breakouts are still causing severe problems in nations where recycling is driven by informal collectors, he warned.