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The waste system must be adapted to the new reality of a growing pile

Coronavirus revealed how fragile the waste cycle really is. The collection of waste is being cut globally due to social distancing and staff absences, as well as concerns over worker’s health and safety. This affects the collection, sorting, and processing of wastes, as well as markets for recycled materials and composts.

In the UK, 46 percent of recycling facilities reduced or stopped their treatment. Most household waste recycling centers have closed. The impact of this is felt around the globe. In the US, 31% of facilities were negatively affected. If these recyclable materials are not stored properly at home, then they could end up going to landfills or incinerators.

Changes in lifestyle exacerbate this problem. The amount of Waste produced in industrial and commercial workplaces has decreased dramatically. Home renovations and clear-outs are generating domestic Waste that can’t go to recycling centers.

This has led to a 300% rise in reported cases of fly-tipping among rural communities in the UK. Unnecessary disposal of items that could be donated to charity is a problem. High street charity shops in the UK, which raise approximately PS270 million per year for good causes, now face threats just as demand for their services is at its highest.

Rubbish by the roadside, Northfleet. Ian West/PA Image/PA Wire

Industries that are heavily reliant on recycled materials will, therefore, be under the greatest pressure to secure resources. US plastic recycling has requested a US$1 Billion bailout (PS800 Million) “to meet this crisis.” There are warnings about shortages of cardboard for future packaging, as we produce less and recycle less in the workplace. And there is a sharp increase in shopping online that brings more paper and cards into our homes.

The dramatic drop in wood waste recycling rates ( down to less than 10% of the capacity) due to construction slowdowns and closings of household recycling centers has a knock-on effect on biomass energy production. The demand for recycled steel and aluminum has decreased globally due to the reduction in car production. Medical Waste is growing rapidly and requires specialist collection.

COVID-19 has a negative impact on the environment and waste management.

Linear or circular?

It is a challenge, but it’s not insurmountable. The economies will be able to deal with the disruption of the waste cycle because, for the majority, they still operate on a linear economic model, where virgin resources are used to produce goods and then disposed of when the product is no longer needed.

Many countries have begun the transition to a new management system that is based on a ” Circular Economy.” This system aims to return waste materials to manufacturers to be used as resources. Some countries and sectors are ahead of the curve in this regard, having successfully integrated recovery and return into design. Examples include deposit-return schemes for bottles. This is a slow transition, and the world’s economy is currently more linear than circular.

The Lockdown program has exposed many problems in the circular economy. This does not mean that we should continue to follow a linear economic model. We should aim for a circular economy, which is both economically sustainable and environmentally sustainable. Circularity helps to reduce the need for new resources and the environmental impact of mining. It also lowers costs and helps to achieve climate and environment goals.

The system relies on the recovery of resources from Waste in order to meet demand, as production requires less virgin material. As the COVID-19 epidemic has shown, these systems can easily buckle under pressure.

If the supply of recovered material is interrupted in a circular economy – for example, by a pandemic – it will have a dramatic impact on the material supply chains. In a circular economy, long-term disruptions can permanently remove precious resources worth several months from the cycle. This would require a large-scale industrial recovery to restart. In a circular economy, some of these extraction methods could be eliminated or limited. The reduction of available recycled materials will also reduce the rate at which the economy recovers due to material supply issues.

If the circular economy is going to succeed, it is more important than ever to address these supply-chain issues.

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Jane S. King

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