Garbage is everywhere but is mostly overlooked in our everyday environment. Though as individuals we deal with municipal solid waste every day, waste infrastructure – like black bags, covered bins, enclosed trucks, industrial waste cycles, and publicly inaccessible landfills - keeps the majority of garbage out of sight and mind.
In reality, in Illinois, landfill space is limited (average lifespan = 21 years), and the Covid-19 pandemic is exposing just how essential, complex, and fragile our waste cycle is. In a matter of months, people in Illinois and around the world transformed their everyday activity patterns, leading to drastic shifts in the production, consumption, and disposal of various materials.
Change in consumption patterns = changes in waste patterns
One of the most significant and visible changes in the waste cycle is the increase in consumption of disposable and single-use materials. Single-use plastics have been important in the fight against Covid-19. A study in China indicated that medical use plastics production has increased 600% since pre-pandemic times. Hospitals around the U.S. have doubled or tripled their normal usage of PPE, as well as other single-use plastics necessary for widespread Covid testing and vaccine research.
In addition to medical plastics, there is a shift back to single-use plastics at retail and grocery stores with the suspension of plastic bag bans and fees in Illinois and globally. Stay-at-home and social distancing guidelines have also led to the intensification of single-use products and panic buying, and the increased production and consumption of light packaging materials for online purchases, take-out meals, and home delivery. And with so many people using disposable PPE, media headlines from around the world show the proliferation of littered masks, gloves, hand sanitizer bottles, and other single-use materials, thwarting global efforts to reduce plastic pollution.
Local responses to waste shifts and the protection of waste workers
Even before 2020, waste management was one of the largest budget items for municipal governments, and it is a multi-sector planning challenge that has important implications for climate change, environmental justice, and economic development opportunities. Used PPE must be disposed in hazardous waste incineration plants, but some used medical plastics are mixed with non-hazardous materials and landfilled. Light plastic packaging is not easily recycled or cannot be recycled; it also must be incinerated or put in sanitary landfills that are filling up fast.
And yet, the waste and recycling industry’s essential public health role means that it has been operating through the pandemic in municipalities of all sizes to keep potentially infectious household waste off the streets. For example, Chicago’s waste workers noted a 50% surge in household waste during the stay-at-home order. This surge in waste tonnage came before many waste workers had access to PPE. Other cities have had similar increases in residential waste volume between 5% to 50%. The decline of commercial and increase in residential wastes has had major financial and safety ramifications in local areas. Many recycling companies and facilities have had to close or reduce capacity to protect workers and thus divert their items to landfills.
What the data doesn’t show, however, is how waste collection and transportation workers cope with the flows of garbage while maintaining social distancing. Households with ill family members are advised to wear gloves when throwing out potentially contaminated items, but little public guidance is given on how to protect the health of waste and recycling workers from those same items. Last week, the National Waste and Recycling Association sent a letter to the CDC and to state governors to prioritize waste workers in vaccine distributions, and the Solid Waste Association of North America published guidelines for how residents can help protect waste workers.
Changes in consumption and waste habits can have profound and lasting economic, environmental, and social consequences and opportunities.
During the pandemic, many people have noticed an increase in garbage produced in our own homes. This visible pileup of unwanted materials exposes many economic, justice, health, and environmental problems related to the current “take-make-waste” use cycle of resources. Visible pandemic trash has also inspired reflection - from the individual to global level –on alternative uses for discarded materials, and ultimately, a chance to think about how we avoid creating waste in the first place.
The good news is that researchers in the UI System are partnering with other global researchers, businesses, and policy and industry leaders, to advance interdisciplinary efforts to study and solve these challenges. This work, combined with an accelerated innovation agenda due to the pandemic, is an opportunity to work with cities to create broader, long-term shifts to a more circular economy. As small and large cities adapt circular policies and practices, efficient waste planning and collaborative recycling/reuse efforts can save local governments crucial public dollars, while creating jobs and helping reduce economic and environmental risks from future shocks.
Dr. Anne-Marie Hanson, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, received her Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Arizona in 2013. She also holds an MA in Latin American Studies and BA in Anthropology and Spanish. Anne-Marie’s research/teaching interests include political ecology; garbage, recycling, and marine litter; environmental justice and urban sustainability; gender and global environmental change. Her current research focuses on the intertwined political ecologies of waste management, nature protection, and sustainable development in Illinois and in coastal Yucatán, Mexico. Her work is published in regional and international journals, including Gender, Place, and Culture and Antipode, and in her co-edited book: A Political Ecology of Women, Water, and Global Environmental Change (Routledge 2015).
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