One year after Covid-19 outbreak, cities are still having quite a hard time with garbage collection and management. Waste volumes have fluctuated greatly, and the composition of waste has changed too, requiring operators to adjust at a very short notice.

The situation varies from country to country, from city to city, since communities were differently hit by the pandemic and experienced different kind of lockdowns – therefore the impact on waste generation and collection is absolutely patchy.

Preliminary data from Austria showed a decrease of up to 20% for commercial and industrial waste. Areas whose economy is highly dependent on tourism reported an almost 90% reduction of food waste. On the other hand, household trash increased about 5% in most Austrian cities, pushing operators to deal with growing volumes of organic waste, medical waste (think of disposable personal protective equipment), and packaging waste.

Packaging-related plastic, paper and cardboard due to the rise of e-commerce and home delivery is a hot issue in the UK too. The recycling and packaging company DS Smith surveyed about 2,000 adults and found over 30% have seen a boom in their household waste with the pandemic, and 35% are embarrassed about the amount of waste they produce. About 48% blame extra packaging from online deliveries for their overflowing bins, and half of those polled claimed they have even completely run out of recycling bins space.

In Western European and North American countries, the biggest challenge for municipal garbage collection is to change operations quickly and smoothly enough to address new habits and trends due to Covid-19, while the waste management and recycling infrastructure should evolve to ensure proper treatment in a sustainable, circular economy perspective.

In countries with weaker municipal waste management services there are additional issues, as the sudden increase in household generation put the system at risk of collapse. In Brazil, for instance, high infection rates were reported among waste pickers, with the immediate need to define protection measures for those handling possible contaminated materials during garbage collection or in sorting facilities.

Waste management also pressures authorities and municipalities in Nepal, where a diffused public awareness about environmental-friendly and safe handling of household trash is still lacking. Kathmandu alone produces about 1020 metric tons of municipal waste every day, most of it ending up in landfills, dumped in the open or burnt at household level. Over 19% of air pollutants in Kathmandu valley are estimated to come from open garbage burning. As the pandemic heightened public debate about the benefits of clean air and the need to maintain good hygiene, local waste management operators are looking for solutions to durably grant better waste treatment and sustainability performance.

Regardless of specific difficulties at city or country level, it is clear that garbage collection and management should be tackled in a participatory manner. Regulatory measures and mandatory waste management plans should be enforced in all municipalities, while educational programs should be started or reinforced anywhere public awareness is too low to inspire responsible waste reduction and appropriate recycling.

“There is a need for municipalities to not only budget for waste management, but to also devise monitoring mechanisms and explore partnerships with private sector entities with stakes in waste management. This will enable a coordinated vision to establish and efficiently implement appropriate waste management systems”, wrote Dr. Dhundi Raj Pathak, board member of Center of Research for Environment, Energy and Water in Kathmandu, Nepal.

 

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