COVID-19 Is Laying Waste to Many U.S. Recycling Programs
By Brian J. Love and Julie Rieland
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the U.S. recycling industry. Waste sources, quantities and destinations are all in flux, and shutdowns have devastated an industry that was already struggling.
Grocers, whether by state decree or on their own, have brought back single-use plastic bags. Even IKEA has suspended use of its signature yellow reusable in-store bags. Plastic industry lobbyists have also pushed to eliminate plastic bag bans altogether, claiming that reusable bags pose a public health risk.
As researchers interested in industrial ecology and new schemes for polymer recycling, we are concerned about challenges facing the recycling sector and growing distrust of communal and secondhand goods. The trends we see in the making and consuming of single-use goods, particularly plastic, could have lasting negative effects on the circular economy.
Goodwill's Canton, Mich. site looks overwhelmed on June 16, with an oversupply of donations and little immediate chance for resale. Brian Love / CC BY-ND
Recyclers Under Pressure
Since March 2020, when most shelter-in-place orders began, sanitation workers have noted massive increases in municipal garbage and recyclables. For example, in cities like Chicago, workers have seen up to 50% more waste.
According to the Solid Waste Association of North America, U.S. cities saw a 20% average increase in municipal solid waste and recycling collection from March into April 2020. Increased trash can be attributed partly to spring cleaning, but most of it is due to people spending greater time at home. Restaurants struggling to survive under COVID-19 restrictions are contributing to the rise in plastic and paper waste with takeout packaging.
Although higher volumes of recyclables are being set on the curb, budget deficits are squeezing recycling programs. Many municipalities are struggling with multimillion-dollar shortfalls. Some communities, such as Rock Springs, Wyoming, and East Peoria, Illinois, have cut recycling programs.
And these stresses are testing a business already faced uncertainty.
While bottle deposit stations remain closed, recyclables pile up in basements and garages. David Rieland / CC BY-ND
Turmoil in Scrap Markets
The global recycling economy has suffered since 2018 as first China and then other Asian nations banned imports of low-quality scrap — often meaning improperly cleaned food packaging and poorly sorted recyclable materials. As in any business, the value of raw recyclables is linked to supply and demand. Without demand from nations like China, which formerly took up to 700,000 tons of U.S. scrap annually, recyclers have scrambled to stay in business.
The pandemic has boosted prices for some materials. One industry leader told us that between February and May 2020, prices doubled for recycled paper and tripled for recycled cardboard. These shifts reflect higher demand for tissue products and shipping packaging under shelter-in-place orders.
However, he also reported that prices for the most-recycled categories of reclaimed plastics — PET (#1) and PE (#2 and #4) – were at 10-year lows. An influx of cheap oil has driven the raw material cost of oil-derived virgin plastics to their lowest levels in decades, outcompeting recycled feedstocks.
Ideally, revenues from recycling offset municipalities' costs for collecting and disposing of solid wastes. However, given worker safety concerns, low market prices for scrap materials, a slowed economy and cheaper alternatives for disposal, many communities and businesses across the U.S. have temporarily suspended collection of recyclables and bottle deposits.
Meanwhile, as the commercial sector slowed, the distribution of waste generation changed. As people have spent more time producing waste at home, waste collectors implemented new procedures to protect their employees from infection.
Recycling is a very hands-on process that requires workers to manually sort out items from the collection stream that are unsuitable for mechanical processing. Workers and waste collection companies have raised many safety questions about recycling during the pandemic.
Precautions like social distancing and use of personal protective equipment have become commonplace among waste collectors and sorters, though concerns remain. Sorters are increasingly relying on automation, but implementation can be costly and takes time.
Collections on Pause
Based on monitoring since 2017 by the trade publication Waste Dive, nearly 90 curbside recycling programs had experienced or continue to experience a prolonged suspension over the past several years. About 30 of these suspensions have occurred since January 2020.
Like many bottle deposit programs, Kroger's Ann Arbor, Mich. drop-off center shut down on March 23. Michigan bottle deposits across the state resumed on June 15, 2020 with new safety protocols. Brian Love / CC BY-ND
On a broader scale, it's not clear how much more waste Americans are currently producing during shutdowns. Commercial and residential waste aren't directly comparable. For example, a granola bar wrapper thrown away at the office is tallied differently than if discarded at home.
It is also challenging to quantify the effects of the pandemic while it is still unfolding. Historically, waste output from the commercial and industrial sectors has far outweighed the municipal stream. With many offices and business closed or operating at low levels, total U.S. waste production could actually be at a record low during this time. However, data on commercial and industrial wastes are not readily available.
At the California-based Peninsula Sanitary Service, which serves the Stanford University community, total tonnage was down 60% in March. The company attributes this drop to reduced commercial waste, particularly from construction. Similarly, the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, noted a 10% decrease year over year of waste collection levels for April.
Expected sectors of plastic waste increase due to COVID-19, based on 2018 plastic usage distribution data from PlasticsEurope and Klemes et al., 2020. Brian Love and Julie Rieland / CC BY-ND
More Plastic Trash
As cities and industries reopen in the coming months, new data will show the pandemic's effects on consumer habits and waste generation. But regardless of total volume, the mix of materials in household wastes has shifted given the new ubiquity of single-use plastic containers, online shopping packaging and disposable gloves, wipes and face masks. Many of these new staples of pandemic life are made from plastics that are simply not worth recycling if there are any other disposal options.
Today Americans are trying to balance their physical well-being against ever-mounting piles of plastic waste. At a time when reducing and reusing could be dangerous, and recycling economics are unfavorable, we see a need for better options, such as more compostable packaging that is both safer and more sustainable.
Brian J. Love is a Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan. Julie Rieland is a PhD Candidate in Macromolecular Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan.
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
By Gwen Ranniger
Fertility issues are on the rise, and new literature points to ways that your environment may be part of the problem. We've rounded up some changes you can make in your life to promote a healthy reproductive system.
Infertility and Environmental Health: The Facts<ul> <li>Sperm count is declining steeply, significantly, and continuously in Western countries, with no signs of tapering off. Erectile dysfunction is on the rise, and women are facing increasing rates of miscarriage and difficulty conceiving.</li><li>Why? A huge factor is our environmental health. Hormones (particularly testosterone and estrogen) are what make reproductive function possible, and our hormones are increasingly being negatively affected by harmful, endocrine-disrupting chemicals commonplace in the modern world—in our homes, foods, and lifestyles.</li></ul>
What You Can Do About It<p>It should be noted that infertility can be caused by any number of factors, including medical conditions that cannot be solved with a simple change at home.</p><p><em>If you or a loved one are struggling with infertility, our hearts and sympathies are with you. Your pain is validated and we hope you receive answers to your struggles.</em></p><p>Read on to discover our tips to restore or improve reproductive health by removing harmful habits and chemicals from your environment.</p>
Edit Your Health<ul><li>If you smoke, quit! Smoking is toxic, period. If someone in your household smokes, urge them to quit or institute a no-smoking ban in the house. It is just as important to avoid secondhand smoke.</li><li>Maintain a healthy weight. Make sure your caloric intake is right for your body and strive for moderate exercise.</li><li>Eat cleanly! Focus on whole foods and less processed meals and snacks. Studies have found that eating a Mediterranean-style diet is linked to increased fertility.</li><li>Minimize negative/constant stress—or find ways to manage it. Hobbies such as meditation or yoga that encourage practiced breathing are great options to reduce the physical toll of stress.</li></ul>
Edit Your Home<p>We spend a lot of time in our homes—and care that what we bring into them will not harm us. You may not be aware that many commonly found household items are sources of harmful, endocrine-disrupting compounds. Read on to find steps you can take—and replacements you should make—in your home.</p><p><strong>In the Kitchen</strong></p><ul> <li>Buy organic, fresh, unprocessed foods whenever possible. <a href="https://www.ehn.org/clean-grocery-shopping-guide-2648563801.html" target="_blank">Read our grocery shopping guide for more tips about food.</a></li><li>Switch to glass, ceramics, or stainless steel for food storage: plastics often contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals that affect fertility. <a href="https://www.ehn.org/bpa-pollution-2645493129.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Learn more about the dangers of plastic here.</a></li><li>Ban plastic from the microwave. If you have a plastic splatter cover, use paper towel, parchment paper, or an upside-down plate instead.</li><li>Upgrade your cookware: non-stick may make life easier, but it is made with unsafe chemical compounds that seep into your food. Cast-iron and stainless steel are great alternatives.</li><li>Filter tap water. Glass filter pitchers are an inexpensive solution; if you want to invest you may opt for an under-the-sink filter.</li><li>Check your cleaning products—many mainstream products are full of unsafe chemicals. <a href="https://www.ehn.org/how-to-shop-for-cleaning-products-while-avoiding-toxics-2648130273.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Check out our guide to safe cleaning products for more info</a>.</li></ul><p><strong>In the Bathroom </strong></p><ul> <li>Check the labels on your bathroom products: <em>fragrance-free, paraben-free, phthalate-free</em> and organic labels are all great signs. You can also scan the ingredients lists for red-flag chemicals such as: triclosan, parabens, and dibutyl phthalate. Use the <a href="https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/" target="_blank">EWG Skin Deep database</a> to vet your personal products.</li><li>Ditch the vinyl shower curtain—that new shower curtain smell is chemical-off gassing. Choose a cotton or linen based curtain instead.</li><li>Banish air fresheners—use natural fresheners (an open window, baking soda, essential oils) instead.</li></ul><p><strong>Everywhere Else</strong></p><ul><li>Remove wall-to-wall carpet. If you've been considering wood or tile, here's your sign: many synthetic carpets can emit harmful chemicals for years. If you want a rug, choose wool or plant materials such as jute or sisal.</li><li>Prevent dust build-up. Dust can absorb chemicals in the air and keep them lingering in your home. Vacuum rugs and wipe furniture, trim, windowsills, fans, TVs, etc. Make sure to have a window open while you're cleaning!</li><li>Leave shoes at the door! When you wear your shoes throughout the house, you're tracking in all kinds of chemicals. If you like wearing shoes inside, consider a dedicated pair of "indoor shoes" or slippers.</li><li>Clean out your closet—use cedar chips or lavender sachets instead of mothballs, and use "green" dry-cleaning services over traditional methods. If that isn't possible, let the clothes air out outside or in your garage for a day before putting them back in your closet.</li><li>Say no to plastic bags!</li><li>We asked 22 endocrinologists what products they use - and steer clear of—in their homes. <a href="https://www.ehn.org/nontoxic-products-2648564261.html" target="_blank">Check out their responses here</a>.</li></ul>
Learn More<ul><li>For more information and action steps, be sure to check out <em>Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race</em> by EHS adjunct scientist Shanna Swan, PhD: <a href="https://www.shannaswan.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">available for purchase here.</a></li><li><a href="https://www.ehn.org/st/Subscribe_to_Above_The_Fold" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sign up for our Above the Fold Newsletter </a>to stay up to date about impacts on the environment and your health.</li></ul>
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