Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR)
European section of United Cities and Local Governments


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COVID-19

Waste - 08.04.2020

Safely collecting household waste in the age of COVID-19
Cities and regions across Europe face many challenges in collecting household waste while limiting the spread of the coronavirus. To contribute to tackling this issue, CEMR held an online meeting on April 2 with our members to discuss their experiences and the measures taken to ensure continuity of service and the safety of waste personnel.

While the situation varies in different European countries according to local conditions and national regulation, a few recurring trends and lessons can be observed.

Rising demand, loss of staff

On the one hand, there are staff shortages in several countries due to waste workers falling sick or being quarantined. On the other, there is an increase in the need for their services. There has been a significant rise in household waste, including food and other organic waste, due to citizens staying at home.

There has also been a tremendous increase in bulky waste as residents clear out their homes, leading to the shutdown of local recycling centres to ensure social distancing and in an increase in unauthorised dumping.

In some countries, such as Austria and Estonia, some local private waste managers have stopped their activities at very short notice because of the outbreak and local governments had to quickly implement solutions to ensure continuity of service.

The recycling chain is facing challenges for some waste streams. For textile or metals for example, collection is running as usual, but the stores and factories which would normally buy these materials are often closed. What’s more, the paper waste stream is thinning due to stores no longer throwing away paper and cardboard. Factories recycling to produce toilet paper or tissues are concerned about shortages.

Counter-measures

In the majority of countries, dedicated task forces have been created to assess the situation in real time and prepare contingency plans. National governments are providing guidelines and recommendations for local authorities. Waste services are considered everywhere to be a key public service for the health of citizens and are still running.

Several measures have been taken to adapt to the rise in waste and reduction in waste personnel. Local governments are sometimes joining forces with other public institutions and with private companies to maintain waste collection. In Spain for instance, civil protection units and even military emergency units are ensuring collection where necessary. In Germany, the managers of commercial waste, who otherwise have no customers due to store and restaurant closures, are assisting public waste managers.

Many cities are prioritising waste streams. Food, organic, residual and medical waste are typically given priority. The collection of other streams, such as packaging and paper, can be reduced if necessary.

In Spain, Italy and Germany, new protocols have been put in place to manage waste from quarantined individuals. These people no longer sort their own waste but put everything in one bag. Waste workers are to be equipped with masks and individual protection, although this can be difficult to achieve given the current shortages. In Germany, waste personnel will soon be tested to check if they have been infected.

What next?

CEMR members will continue to share their experiences and practices on how local governments are handling the situation. We will monitor developments and, later in the year, will engage in a reflection on the impact and lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis in the field of waste management.
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