How West Michigan's trash has changed in quarantine

COVID-19 has affected nearly every industry, from health care to hospitality, and many have sent employees to work from home — so what has this meant for trash?

As with all businesses, the waste and recycling industry had to determine what adjustments to make to ensure public safety. When COVID-19 began to encroach on the region, the Kent County Department of Public Works instituted many of the precautions and procedures that other industries had adopted, such as maintaining 6 feet of distance and ensuring employees had the proper personal protective equipment, according to Darwin Baas, Director of the Kent County Department of Public Works.

“We were kind of tuning in and our industry health and safety people were in touch with the CDC and doing a lot of the things that all the other organizations were doing, but specific to trash, right, waste, how does this work?” says Baas.

According to the CDC, potential sources of exposure for waste and recycling collectors are through contact with an employee or customer, or by touching a surface that was handled by a person who has the virus. The National Waste and Recycling Association recommends that municipal waste, whether known to be contaminated with the virus or not, be handled the same as pre-pandemic, but of course using safe practices and proper PPE.

While waste removal services have stayed in operation throughout the pandemic, the Department of Public Works had to close its recycling centers until early May. Unlike waste management, which is fairly hands-off according to Baas, recyclables involve more handling and sorting, and the department had to make sure the proper safety measures were implemented before reopening facilities.

A major concern was how long the virus could live on recyclables. COVID-19 survives longer on plastic and stainless steel than on cardboard and copper, according to an April letter in The New England Journal of Medicine, but it found that all four surfaces still contained viable virus after 72 hours.

In preparation for reopening, the Department of Public Works increased personal protective gear for the recycling center’s employees, in addition to other precautions such as frequent cleaning and socially distant work stations.

But, how have waste and recycling changed? During the early weeks of the spike in cases in the U.S., Waste Today launched a survey to industry professionals across the country to gain insight into the virus’ impact. 24.5% of businesses responded that inbound trash from office or retail spaces was severely affected and 27.15% say that it was moderately affected.

Once businesses and institutions began to close here in Kent County, it took a week or two before Baas began to see a decline in waste. “I think there's just a certain amount of garbage already in the system.” It was then that the department saw about a 20% drop in commercial waste for about a month, according to Baas.

“We've seen the residential side of the business...kind of go up by about the same amount that some of that commercial went down.” Not only did residential waste and recycling increase, but the materials themselves have begun to reflect the nature of quarantine and changing habits — more organic food waste from cooking at home, materials from home improvement projects, corrugated cardboard from increased online shopping, and aluminum beverage containers.

“Michigan has a bottle deposit law and the governor's executive order, they suspended returns, but people still wanted to do something with them, they didn't want to sit on them,” says Baas. He says the amount of aluminum beverage containers increased by two to three times the typical amount they would normally see.

“COVID-19 has brought a slightly different mixture of recyclables to the Recycling Center,” says Kristen Wieland Communications & Marketing Manager for Kent County Department of Public Works. “With people spending more time at home, we’re seeing a higher volume of recyclables since the Kent County Recycling Center processes primarily residential recyclables. We’ve also seen a significant increase in cardboard from online ordering and aluminum cans that would otherwise be eligible for a deposit if returned to a store.”


To specifically improve the quality of recycling across Michigan — that is, to ensure that the right items are making their way to the recycling bin, the trash bin, and vice versa — Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy worked with national advocacy organization The Recycling Partnership to offer a grant to help specific communities throughout the state.

The grant, called Feet on the Street, funds outreach and education efforts throughout the city, including workers visiting residential recycling bins and offering feedback on the quality of recycling items coming from each individual home. The program also involves assessing recycling items’ quality on the tipping floor of the Kent County Recycling Center

The county wrote a letter of support and offered infrastructure assistance for Grand Rapids’ application of the grant. “Kent County committed to providing space and assistance in the pre- and post-project assessment, where samples of recyclables are collected before and after the project to be able to measure improvements,” says Wieland.

With efforts like Feet on the Street and the shifting nature of West Michiganders’ day-to-day lives, it’s difficult to say what the future of various industries will look like and how substantial changes will affect waste management and recycling efforts.

“I think maybe commercial waste could drop a little bit and stay lower if people are working more from home or teleworking,” says Baas. “I would like to think that if people are at home more and cooking and doing more food prep at home that they would be more in tune with recycling and making sure that the containers and everything else that they use can be placed in the recycling bin, but I don't know that it's gonna change habits and practices that much.”

“The biggest thing that you see happen is like with the construction industry, if that slows way down, or if manufacturing slows way down, that's when you start to see fluctuation in the type of waste that comes in, but I don't know day to day, just with the average commercial business or average resident, you probably don't see a lot of fluctuation.”

Baas is curious to see how waste services will be impacted one year from now, but based on the changing trash flow from commercial to residential, and slow-downs affecting entire industries, Kent County’s waste has the potential to portray big shifts in consumption during COVID-19.

Images courtesy Kent County Department of Public Works.
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