COVID-19 could pose challenges for waste workers

COVID-19 could pose challenges for waste workers

Comparing the current health crisis to the 1918 flu pandemic, recycling journalist Adam Minter believes the COVID-19 outbreak could cause unique challenges for U.S. waste collection.


In a Bloomberg op-ed, recycling journalist and author Adam Minter writes of how the COVID-19 outbreak can pose several unique challenges for the U.S. waste collection and disposal industry.

Minter foresees this crisis generating a surge in solid medical waste, such as used surgical masks and empty IV bags. Although the U.S. has sufficient capacity at specialized medical waste treatment centers to manage medical waste generated in hospitals, large-scale quarantining means that some medical waste will be in home and office recycling and garbage bins.

“Nobody knows how much of a risk COVID-19 waste poses to sanitation workers,” Minter writes. “But it could be substantial: The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases reported last week that COVID-19 can remain infectious in aerosols for hours and on surfaces for days.”

Across the industry, concern is rising about the impact on employees and the ability to collect and process waste. Some recycling centers are closing to maintain safe distances between customers and employees. Waste Management Inc., North America’s largest waste hauler, is reducing staffing levels and implementing social distancing at its plants, says Minter.

“These precautionary steps and concerns will go a long way to ensuring that large numbers of waste workers will work safely through the pandemic. But more can be done,” Minter adds.

Minter believes the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should begin an immediate reassessment of its COVID-19 waste management guidelines in light of recent data on the persistence of the virus in aerosols and on surfaces. Currently, OSHA states that management of waste suspected or known to contain or be contaminated with COVID-19 “does not generally require special precautions beyond those already used to protect workers from the hazards they encounter during their routine job tasks in solid waste management.”

Encouraging Americans to take extra care with their waste and recycling, Minter urges the public to place waste in durable bags that are unlikely to rip, teat or burst. “Doing so will not only protect the health of the people employed to collect your trash, but also help to maintain clean cities where disease outbreaks are rare and quick,” he says.