Since declared a pandemic in March 2020, COVID-19 has resulted in social and economic disruption worldwide, including the waste sector. It’s not only hospitals and healthcare facilities producing more medical waste than usual, the amount and type of waste individuals and households produced has also changed dramatically. According to Scientific American, newly developed consumer behaviors induced by the pandemic are contributing to the increase of single-use plastics and projected a 30% increase in waste than 2019.
The pandemic has led to a massive increase of single-use plastics (SUP), primarily driven by protective gear such as gloves, disinfectant bottles and packaging materials. Simultaneously, waste production is being rapidly redistributed, shifting from commercial centers to residential areas. With more people dining and staying at home, the volume of municipal solid waste (MSW) has increased the amount of rubbish, including plastics, going to landfill. This increased of MSW is testing the limits of existing waste management systems and making it both financially and logistically challenging for municipalities.
SO WHERE DOES ALL THE EXTRA WASTE GO?
In North America, most municipal waste ends up in landfills whereas in Europe the tendency is towards incineration. The situation is even more extreme in markets lacking formalized waste management, where external funding has been reappropriated towards the pandemic effort. Waste in regions with no or limited infrastructure often ends up mismanaged in dumps or openly burned, both of which release toxins into the environment.
Even in areas with ‘mature’ waste management systems, only a small amount of plastics get recycled today. When plastic is not extracted from the waste stream and disposed of in landfill or incineration plants, there is a significant negative impact on the environment. Unfortunately, the circularity of materials from waste recycled into new products is also trending downward, rather than upward. The Circularity Gap Report 2020 revealed that the global economy was only 8.6% circular, but it was 9.1% just two years earlier. The problem is getting worse, and there is an urgent need to invest in field-proven waste management systems that enable a green recovery.
AN OPPORTUNITY FOR CHANGE
Change usually starts small, and municipalities can take various measures to create more sustainable waste management practices. For example, food waste is a crucial environmental and economic issue that has a positive impact when addressed. Food that travels through the entire supply chain but discarded because it is not consumed costs an estimated 143 billion euros annually in the European Union, with households contributing the most (53.4%).
When food is disposed of in landfills to rot, it becomes a significant source of methane, but it also releases toxic substances into the soil. Raising awareness about food waste among consumers help reduce the strain on waste management systems, decrease greenhouse gas emissions and help avoid groundwater pollution. With more consumers cooking and dining at home due to the pandemic, incorporating a food waste strategy into collection and sorting practices makes a great start towards more a sustainable future.
To read more about the future of waste management systems in both developed and developing markets, we recommended reading the complimentary white paper entitled “Resource Recovery Playbook: expectations for the circular economy of 2030 and the steps required to achieve a sustainable future.” You can download it from our website here.