Waste services could be stripped back due to coronavirus, says LARAC chief

Local authority waste services would likely be stripped back in the event of mass illness amongst waste collection staff caused by coronavirus, but services are well prepared for eventual disruption, says Lee Marshall, CEO of LARAC (Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee).

The outbreak of coronavirus, known by its proper name as Covid-19, is set to cause severe disruption and uncertainty for businesses and public services in the coming months, with many workers likely to fall ill and the government recommending social distancing measures such as working from home.

Bins on the street.Waste and recycling collections will not be immune to this disruption. Speaking to Resource today (18 March), Marshall stated that while local authorities are “probably well prepared for this situation due to having to adjust their services for things like Christmas, unexpected bad weather or when implementing service changes”, services may need to be pared back in the event of large numbers of employees falling ill.

“Clearly if people have to self-isolate or you have mass illnesses then that will greatly affect the waste service,” said Marshall. “Personnel from other services such as street cleansing and litter picking will likely need to be reassigned to work on waste collection.”

He continued: “Local authorities will then likely see a cascade approach to scaling back their waste services, with certain services dropped depending on importance. Services like garden waste would likely be the first to be dropped, while residual waste and food waste collections will be the last ones provided. These will then likely see reduced frequency if the capacity to provide them is severely impacted by mass illnesses among the collection staff.”

Disruption will also affect Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs), which may need to operate on reduced hours or open on alternate days to ensure that services remain available.

Protecting workers

In terms of protecting refuse workers while on collection rounds, Marshall advises them to follow the recommended government hygiene advice. “Currently waste collection workers don’t really come into contact with residents that much anyway,” said Marshall. “Because they all wear PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] there is little chance, as far as we understand it, of catching the virus from collecting waste and recycling, provided that they follow the official advice on personal hygiene, such as washing hands thoroughly.”

Much of the local authority waste service work carried out at management level can be done from home and many local authorities are advising management staff that are able to work from home, so it is likely that this side of things will be less affected.

To further reduce the risk of collections to waste operatives, the government has advised that residents who suspect they may have been infected with Covid-19 to double-bag their waste and not place in communal waste areas for 72 hours or until receiving a negative test result.

Treatment and disposal

In terms of disposal and treatment, it is unlikely that material will be contaminated to the extent that it will need to be incinerated rather than recycled, as stated by Ecosurety’s Head of Policy, Robbie Staniforth, today and disposal issues are likely to arise more from staff shortages at waste transfer stations and energy-from-waste (EfW) facilities.

Marshall said: “With regard to EfW and waste transfer stations, the issue is just their ability to keep operating in the face of staff shortages and if they are then still available. If transfer stations have to close it has a knock on effect that might mean rounds take long to tip off so some collections could fall behind.”

Financial support

The Chancellor Rishi Sunak last night (17 March) announced an emergency £330-billion package to support businesses to weather the economic impacts of the Covid-19 outbreak, including generous loans and halting business taxes.

Due to existing local authority contingency planning being in a better place than it would have been due to planning that has gone into preparing for EU withdrawal, according to Marshall, there will be less need for financial support for local authority waste services, though this may change.

“It’s probably still a bit too early to say what extra support may be needed, but most local authorities are already well prepared and it will be down to individual local authorities to decide what they need,” said Marshall. “We will be having regular meetings with Defra as more advice becomes available and we will communicate the situation back to our members, but at the moment what the future might hold remains uncertain.”