Analyzing municipal recycling programs in 2020
Many curbside and municipal recycling programs have been able to adapt to pandemic circumstances, says Susan Robinson of Waste Management Inc.
Photos by Austin Friedline with Phierce Photography

Analyzing municipal recycling programs in 2020

Susan Robinson, senior director of sustainability and advocacy at Houston-based Waste Management, offers her findings on municipal recycling trends.

September 7, 2020

It’s been nearly six months since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, a global pandemic, and it certainly has shifted habits around the globe since then. More people are working from home than in an office setting and shopping continues to move online rather than at brick-and-mortar stores.

In the waste and recycling space, several municipalities and material recovery facilities (MRFs) have had to temporarily suspend operations as workers test positive for COVID-19. However, overall, waste and recycling collections have continued despite several hiccups. Susan Robinson, senior director of sustainability and advocacy at Houston-based Waste Management, says she has been “pleasantly surprised” at how few municipalities and MRFs have suspended operations.

“We have been pleasantly surprised at how well we’ve seen our business adapt in the last few months,” she says. “Certainly [in] March and April there was a significant amount of investment made at MRFs to accommodate changes. We are seeing now I think more overtime driver shortages. But, in the big picture, we saw prices increase for paper because of the demand for papermaking products we all rely on so heavily … so pricing was positive.

“We’ve seen our customers be extremely responsive," she continues. "Our staff has been wonderful. We’ve been able to operate very well. People responded well from an employee perspective and a customer perspective. I’d say it’s a good story to tell in spite of what’s going on.”

Recycling Today (RT): What kind of investments is Waste Management making in its MRFs this year?

Susan Robinson (SR): Certainly, there’s been an extreme focus on safety. We recognized investments to become more efficient really have benefited us. We have more single-stream and automation, which is certainly a benefit in today’s environment. We made additional safety investments to be sure employees are safe and in efficiency to ensure quality materials to ship to end markets. [We’re] increasing focus on cart-based automated collection to [adding] optical sorting and robotics, all things we rely on for more efficient processing. We actually had one new facility open in June [in Salt Lake City], and another [will open] in October. [With Salt Lake City’s facility], things are moving quite well, and we opened on time.

RT: You mention a driver shortage this year. How is that affecting curbside recycling collection?

SR: Really, we’ve found we’ve been able to operate consistently across the country in terms of collection and processing. Some small communities have had trouble ... [there have been] some pauses in those programs—[pauses are] short-lived, though. We are seeing as summer progresses some of our drivers, some of our own drivers, have been out on quarantine, ... [impacting] our collection but not pausing [collection] just delaying in certain areas. As you can imagine, some areas the [COVID-19] case counts are higher, and that impacts everybody’s business.

RT: Along those lines, we’ve noticed some cities have decided to stop or pause municipal recycling during the worst moments of the pandemic. How has Waste Management been affected by that, if at all?

SR: I think it’s important to distinguish suspensions that are budget-related and pauses. We haven’t seen many, if any, just a few small communities who suspended their programs. We are time and again impressed that our customers really want to recycle. Even as markets have shifted in some instances, cities said they wanted to suspend [curbside recycling], but the community [has been] speaking up. Indeed, I think there are more announced [suspensions] than those that follow through. We’re impressed with how our customers want to continue to recycle. We need to distinguish between temporary pauses associated with labor shortages opposed to budget shortages. We really haven’t seen much of that in our business.

RT: Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, how have contamination levels been in curbside recycling programs?

SR: We’re about flat on contamination coming in our facilities. Interestingly, a couple of MRFs reported a little increase, but some of that was temporary. Things look different. There is more residential inbound as opposed to commercial, but overall volumes are flat, and contamination rates are relatively flat.

RT: What are long-term impacts the pandemic could have on municipal recycling, if any?

SR: I think long-term impacts nationwide will be a recognition of the value of automated collection [and] the ability to make sure that material is processed efficiently and safely for the employees. I think another one will be more work from home, at least in the mid-term future. That certainly changes the complexion of the materials we see. I would expect more continued online ordering and continued supply of cardboard. The residential volume, we’ll see it remain pretty strong and continue to educate them to ensure high-quality materials.

RT: What other trends are you noticing with municipal recycling?

SR: There are probably two I am seeing. One is contract language is evolving to a deeper processing with revenue sharing. Contract language itself is important. A second one is much more of a focus on which materials we’re collecting that have strong end markets. As global markets shift, some materials have good stable markets, and we need to be sure we focus on those in our recycling programs.