This story is a collaboration between Cheddar’s Megan Pratz and HEATED’s Emily Atkin.

Like many of you out there, everyone at Cheddar is cooped up at home for maximum social distancing. And we’ve noticed something: in our respective self-quarantines, we’re taking out the trash a lot more than usual.

So our Megan Pratz teamed up with HEATED’s Emily Atkin to figure out the impact this extra waste is having on our communities. It started, as all good stories do, in our living rooms. 

Emily has been feeling pretty restless and likes fizzy water so she’s been drinking massive amounts of LaCroix. Her personal recycling bin has thus been filling up quickly with pink cans and cardboard boxes. Judging by the recycling dumpster at the back of her building in Washington, D.C., her neighbors have been experiencing a similar phenomenon. LaCroix, clearly, is the beverage of the damned.

Another reason for our increased trash trips, though, is that we’re using more material to protect ourselves from COVID-19. The other day, for example, Megan’s family ordered take-out for dinner, and her children’s meals came with a clementine. But, for the first time, those small oranges came in a single serve plastic cup with a lid—presumably to prevent coronavirus contamination. It left her family with four extra pieces of single-use plastic that they wouldn’t otherwise have to deal with. 

As the death toll from coronavirus ticks up across the country, efforts to remain sterile are important. But as reporters, we wondered: could there be negative side-effects to those efforts when it comes to single-use packaging? The plastics industry is, after all, aggressively pushing for more single-use plastics in the era of coronavirus—and the science they’re using to justify it is shaky at best. And more generally, what are the effects of all this trash we’re generating?

What we found is that there’s not enough evidence to declare a trash crisis from COVID-19 — yet. But there certainly is a potential for one down the line should certain trends continue.

We are, indeed, producing more trash in our homes

While commercial waste has decreased due to businesses shutting down, residential waste appears to be rising, quickly. As Waste Dive reporter E.A. Crunden tells us, the country’s second-largest waste collection company Republic Services is anticipating a 30 percent increase in residential waste volumes—due in part to “excess material obtained through panic purchasing.”

“That’s pretty significant,” Crunden said, referring to the 30 percent number. And while Crunden cautioned that reporting was in its early stages, they added, “You’re correct in thinking that recycling numbers will likely decline, and municipal solid waste in more residential sources is going to rise.”

Residential waste increases are popping up elsewhere. Arlington, Virginia, for example, has also seen a 30 percent increase in residential waste volumes in recent weeks, and “is asking residents to hold off on major spring cleaning projects to help crews keep up,” according to Waste Dive.

“The spring cleaning issue is starting to pop up around the country as well,” the site added. “Landfills and donation sites in states such as Idaho, Maryland and Michigan are all asking residents to hold off on making new trips.”

Huge increases in residential waste haven’t been reported everywhere, though. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, for example, told us, “Reports we are getting from the solid waste industry in MA indicates that commercial tonnage is down significantly and residential is up a little.”

And Matt Grondin, the communications manager for EcoMaine (which handles about a third of waste and recycling for the state), told us that trash from residents was only up nearly 7 percent in March — though he added the caveat that any numbers from this past month were preliminary. “In Maine, we’ve only been realizing the effect of these changes [due to coronavirus] for about two weeks.”

Still, the increase in residential trash in some areas does appear to be affecting the recycling sector — which in some cases was already suffering due to coronavirus. And that could have more than just environmental effects.

Recycling is becoming more difficult

Because so many people are generating more garbage in their homes, they’re also paying less attention to what gets recycled — and whether they’re properly cleaning that recycling, according to Republic Services.

“Recycling contamination will increase as excess material from the homeowners finds its way into the recycling container,” the company stated. It added that recycling contamination increased by 20 percent in the week prior to March 24.

At the same time, composting and recycling services are starting to shut down in some areas of the country due to the virus. It’s not a big number yet — but it’s happening. “At this point, only 30 local governments have suspended recycling services,” said Judith Enck, the president of Beyond Plastics. “That is 30 out of thousands. I hope this is not a trend.”

Some of these places, however, are not so small. Kent County, Michigan’s Department of Public Works — which serves eight counties and 650,000 people — recently had to shut its doors to recycling because of concerns over the safety of its workers.

“There's a lot of information out there about how long COVID-19 will last, how long that virus will survive whether it's on metal or plastic or other materials,” Kent County Department of Public Works Director Darwin Baas explained. “We really couldn't assure that we could provide the best level of protection for our employees.” 

Those employees include county jail inmates on work-release — and such work-release programs were shut down to protect jail staff and inmates. “We are really stepping up our disinfection and sanitizing and social distancing and minimizing the number of staff on site,” Baas said.

Thus, in places like Kent County, more recyclable materials are going to the landfill. That’s not only concerning for the environment; it’s concerning for production. “Manufacturers are in need of more clean recyclable materials to meet their demands for making basic goods and emergency supplies,” said Brent Bell, vice president of recycling at Waste Management, the largest residential recycler by volume in America.

In other words, we need recycling to be robust at a time like this. “Without recyclable materials collected from homes and businesses, our customers, who produce products such as tissue, toweling and packaging boxes for grocery and medical supplies, would not have the raw materials that they need to manufacture these important items,” Waste Management Director of External Affairs Janette Micelli explained.

Thus, Waste Management is asking consumers to recycle more. And the Kent County Department of Public Works is asking consumers to hold on to their recyclables, and bring them to the county’s waste-to-energy facility. 

But how are consumers supposed to recycle more if recycling systems are being shut down? And is it really fair to place the burden of increased recycling on individuals now, when everything is so stressful?

Public works officials like Kent County’s Darwin Baas are not naive to the realities for families who are going to face difficult decisions about their own waste footprint in coming days and weeks. 

“At some point their recycling carts are going to be full and they have to make a decision,” Baas said. “But to the extent they can hang on to it, we encourage them to.”

While we are trying to hang on, there’s no doubt that it’s becoming harder the longer this goes on. We don’t have any solutions. We wish every community had a waste-to-energy plant like Kent County where our LaCroix boxes and extra take-out plastic could create electricity.

Keep in mind that recycling plants are closing to protect people — the same reasons we’re drinking so much sparkling water and stress eating. That’s why Enck wants to reiterate that safety for waste workers is paramount: "It is imperative that workers have protective gear and are provided with effective on-the-job protections,” she says. “Thirty-six states have designated waste as an essential service, and that should include recycling, not just collecting and then burying and burning solid waste.”

But also keep in mind that if we had a circular economy where we kept resources in use for as long as possible — instead of a linear one where we make, use and dispose of things as quickly as humanly possible — we wouldn’t be up against problems like these. Imagine if we had a system where we placed the burden of recycling on the producer, rather than the consumer. 

Just another fun activity to pass the time while you’re confined to your home.

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Could the Coronavirus Pandemic Create a Garbage Crisis?
Like many of you out there, everyone at Cheddar is cooped up at home for maximum social distancing. And we’ve noticed something: in our respective self-quarantines, we’re taking out the trash a lot more than usual. So our Megan Pratz teamed up with HEATED’s Emily Atkin to figure out the impact this extra waste is having on our communities.
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