Defra releases Covid-19 waste collections guidance

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has released guidance to local authorities on prioritising waste collection services during the coronavirus outbreak.

The non-statutory guidance, released yesterday (7 April), has been developed with input from councils and the waste and resources industry to provide temporary advice on how local authorities can keep waste collections running as smoothly as possible during the crisis.

Bins on the road.The Covid-19 outbreak and the associated measures implemented by the government to limit its spread have caused disruption to waste services up and down the country. Though the waste industry has been deemed ‘essential’ by the government, staff absences and social distancing advice has had a significant effect on local authorities, with many having to scale back on some services such as garden and bulky waste to keep high priority services such as residual and food waste collections going.

The guidance, which should be seen as temporary and is only intended for English councils, acknowledges that the advice may not be appropriate for all local authorities and that individual local authority contingency plans should be taken into account when planning service delivery.

Collections services have been designated as either high priority, medium priority or low priority, meaning:

  • High priority – These are the most important services and should continue as normal. They are a legal requirement and failure to continue them would result in negative impacts on environmental and human health, with residents more likely to rely on them.
  • Medium priority – Suspension of these services will result in some disruption, but less severe than those of high priority and there will be less risk to human health.
  • Low priority – The impact of suspension of these services will be minimal or non-existent.

High priority

Defra’s guidance states that residual waste collections must be maintained to prevent public and environmental health impacts, reallocating staff from other local authority services if necessary. Householders should be provided with clear communications on any changes to waste services, such as service frequency or when to put out bags for collection.

Food waste collections are also classed as high priority and should be maintained ‘as far as possible, due to potential bioaerosol risks posed by putrescible waste, with mixed food and garden waste collections continuing, though it may be necessary to stop food waste collections and ask residents to put food waste in with residual waste.

The guidance states that councils should ‘seek to maintain current waste services as far as possible,including the separate collection of food waste and of dry recyclable materials’, but accepts that this may not be possible.

Clearing fly-tipping is also a major priority, though what is cleared must be prioritised. Clear messaging must be provided to residents on their duty of care and penalties for fly-tipping, which may increase if residual waste collections are reduced or Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs) are closed.

Medium priority

Fortnightly collections of dry recyclables should be maintained as far as possible to mitigate against residents putting recyclables in the residual waste, potentially increasing disposal costs and throwing away vital raw materials for packaging, possibly causing supply chain issues.

HWRCs and bring sites could remain open if there is staff capacity and social distancing rules can be observed, though restricted access may be necessary.

Trade waste collections should see collection frequency reduced, with local subcontractors potentially taking over responsibility for collections.

Low priority

Temporary cessation of garden waste services should be considered, with bioaerosol risks arising if collections are reduced beyond two weeks. Home composting should be promoted as an alternative to collections if possible. Customers should also be reimbursed for any break in paid-for services.

Weekly collections of dry recyclables are deemed a low priority and reduced frequency should be considered, while bulky waste collections and deliveries of replacement recycling containers should be reduced. Alternative collectors should be considered for bulky waste and containers for putrescible waste, such as residual and food waste, should be prioritised.

HWRCs a medium priority 'surprising'

Though broadly in agreement with the guidance, Lee Marshall, CEO of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC), expressed susprise that HWRCs had been deemed a medium priority, given the mass closure of HWRCs across England in response to the coronavirus crisis. He said: “Whilst we broadly welcome government guidance during the Covid-19 situation, the classification of HWRCs as a medium priority is surprising. The weekend before most HWRCs were closed there were wide ranging issues with enforcing social distancing and it would take additional staff above normal staffing levels to put adequate social distancing in place for most sites. Some staff from HWRCs have been diverted to help with collections, and therefore re-opening HWRCs could cause further disruption to collection services as HWRC employees return to duties.

"We acknowledge that the closure of HWRCs is causing problems for other parts of the industry, but we need the government to look at how they can be supported in other ways. If you consider the public health duties local authorities have, kerbside collections are a safer way of maintaining social distancing and ensuring suitable provision of waste services to residents than a major reopening of HWRCs.”

Communications and precautions

Any changes to collections should be clearly communicated to residents with ‘as much advance warning as possible’, while ‘consideration should be given to the reallocation of appropriate staff from elsewhere within the local authority or waste collection company to maintain minimum statutory services’.

The guidance also recognises that extra precautions need to be taken to protect the safety of operatives, pointing to guidance from Public Health England and the Waste Industry Safety and Health Forum (WISH), as well as government guidance for householders to double-bag personal waste such as tissues and to put them aside for 72 hours before putting them in their residual waste bin.

On 25 March the UK waste and recycling sector released a joint statement urging the public to follow the government’s advice on how to manage their household waste in order to minimize the risk of spreading coronavirus to waste workers.

You can read the guidance in full on the Defra website.

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