Do we live in an actual dumpster now?

Composting and recycling services are starting to shut down in some areas of the country due to the virus.

Hey everyone! Today’s article was reported in partnership with Cheddar News. Cheddar is video news network that livestreams its broadcasts on Hulu, SlingTV, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other places, reaching about 6.5 million viewers a month. Check them out—I’ll be on there on Friday at 10:10 a.m. EST talking about this story.

I wrote and reported this story with Megan Pratz, a producer for Cheddar News. Actually, this whole thing was her idea—so if you like it, you should follow Megan on Twitter, because she has good ideas! My research assistant, Chris May, also contributed reporting to this story. Teamwork makes the dreamwork, folks. Especially during a pandemic.

But first, before we get to the story—a little stupid piece of news from yesterday to make you laugh/cry.

White House to hold large gathering of oil executives in violation of CDC guidelines

The American Petroleum Industry has confirmed that President Donald Trump plans to hold an in-person meeting with several big-name oil and gas industry executives at the White House on Friday, to discuss ways the government can help the industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Executives from companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp., Occidental Petroleum Corp. and Continental Resources Inc. are expected to attend, according to people familiar with the meeting who asked not to be named to discuss non-public matters,” Bloomberg reported. CNBC’s Brian Sullivan reported the group would include CEOs from several major companies.

I’m of course pissed about this for climate-related reasons. I don’t think I need to get into it. Here are some tweets in case it’s not clear.

But I’m also just… I don’t know, confused?? Like, y’all really flying in oil company CEOs from all over the country to have a gathering at the White House in the middle of a pandemic that threatens elderly people? Former Continental CEO Harold Hamm is 74 years old. Trump is 73. The rest of them are younger than that, but still! This just doesn’t sound like appropriate social distancing to me, you know?

Anyway, I reached out to the CDC to see if this meeting fell within their COVID-19 guidelines. It doesn’t appear to, but you never know. Haven’t yet heard back; will update you if I do.

I’m sure they’ll all be OK if they just wear scarves.

Could COVID-19 create a garbage crisis?

(Trash piles up at a recycling center in the U.K. during the second week of lockdown due to coronavirus. Photo by Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images.)

Like many of you out there, Cheddar News reporter Megan Pratz and I have both been cooped up in our homes in D.C. for the last few weeks. As in our respective self-quarantines, we’ve both noticed something interesting: We’re taking out the trash a lot more than usual.

Part of that is simply because we’re living our entire lives in one place. For example, because I’m restless and like fizzy water, I’ve been drinking massive amounts of La Croix. My personal recycling bin has thus been filling up quickly with pink cans and cardboard boxes. Judging by the recycling dumpster at the back of my building, my neighbors have been experiencing a similar phenomenon. La Croix, clearly, is the beverage of the damned.

Another reason for our increased trash trips, though, is that we’re using more material to protect ourselves from COVID-19. The other day, for example, Megan’s family ordered take-out for dinner, and her children’s meals came with a clementine. But, for the first time, those small oranges came in a single serve plastic cup with a lid—presumably to prevent coronavirus contamination. It left her family with four extra pieces of single-use plastic that they wouldn’t otherwise have to deal with. 

As the death toll from coronavirus ticks up across the country, efforts to remain sterile are important. But as reporters, we wondered: could there be negative side-effects to those efforts when it comes to single-use packaging? The plastics industry is, after all, aggressively pushing for more single-use plastics in the era of coronavirus—and the science they’re using to justify it is shaky at best. And more generally, what are the effects of all this trash we’re generating?

What we found is that there’s not enough evidence to declare a trash crisis from COVID-19—yet. But there certainly is a potential for one down the line should certain trends continue.

We are, indeed, producing more trash in our homes

While commercial waste has decreased due to businesses shutting down, residential waste appears to be rising, quickly. As WasteDive reporter E.A. Crunden tells us, the country’s second-largest waste collection company Republic Services is anticipating a 30 percent increase in residential waste volumes—due in part to “excess material obtained through panic purchasing.”

“That’s pretty significant,” Crunden said, referring to the 30 percent number. And while they cautioned that reporting was in its early stages, they added, “You’re correct in thinking that recycling numbers will likely decline, and municipal solid waste in more residential sources is going to rise.”

(A latex plastic glove litters the street on April 1, 2020 in Paris, on the thirteenth day of a lockdown in France. Photo by Mehdi Taamallah/NurPhoto via Getty Images.)

Evidence of residential waste increases is popping up elsewhere, too. Arlington, Virginia, for example, has also seen a 30 percent increase in residential waste volumes in recent weeks, and “is asking residents to hold off on major spring cleaning projects to help crews keep up,” according to WasteDive.

“The spring cleaning issue is starting to pop up around the country as well,” the site added. “Landfills and donation sites in states such as Idaho, Maryland and Michigan are all asking residents to hold off on making new trips.”

Huge increases in residential waste haven’t been reported everywhere, though. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, for example, told us that “Reports we are getting from the solid waste industry in MA indicates that commercial tonnage is down significantly and residential is up a little.”

And Matt Grondin, the communications manager for EcoMaine (which handles about a third of waste and recycling for the state), told us that trash from residents was only up nearly 7 percent in March—though he caveated that any numbers from this past month were preliminary. “In Maine, we’ve only been realizing the effect of these changes [due to coronavirus] for about two weeks.”

Still, the increase in residential trash in some areas does appear to be affecting the recycling sector—which in some cases was already suffering due to coronavirus. And that could have more than just environmental effects.

Recycling is becoming more difficult

Because so many people are generating more garbage in their homes, they’re also paying less attention to what gets recycled—and whether they’re properly cleaning that recycling, according to Republic Services.

“Recycling contamination will increase as excess material from the homeowners finds its way into the recycling container,” the company stated. It added that recycling contamination increased by 20 percent in the week prior to March 24.

At the same time, composting and recycling services are starting to shut down in some areas of the country due to the virus. It’s not a big number yet—but it’s happening. “At this point, only 30 local governments have suspended recycling services,” said Judith Enck, the president of Beyond Plastics. “That is 30 out of thousands. I hope this is not a trend.”

Some of these places, however, are not so small. Kent County, Michigan’s Department of Public Works—which serves eight counties and 650,000 people—recently had to shut its doors to recycling because of concerns over the safety of its workers.

“There's a lot of information out there about how long COVID-19 will last, how long that virus will survive whether it's on metal or plastic or other materials,” Kent County Department of Public Works Director Darwin Baas explained. “We really couldn't assure that we could provide the best level of protection for our employees.” 

Those employees include county jail inmates on work-release—and such work-release programs were shut down to protect jail staff and inmates. “We are really stepping up our disinfection and sanitizing and social distancing and minimizing the number of staff on site,” Baas said.

(Local residents applaud as waste bins are collected on March 30, 2020 in Northampton, England. Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images.)

Thus, in places like Kent County, more recyclable materials are going to the landfill. That’s not only concerning for the environment; it’s concerning for production. “Manufacturers are in need of more clean recyclable materials to meet their demands for making basic goods and emergency supplies,” said Brent Bell, vice president of recycling at Waste Management, the largest residential recycler by volume in America.

In other words, we need recycling to be robust at a time like this. “Without recyclable materials collected from homes and businesses, our customers, who produce products such as tissue, toweling and packaging boxes for grocery and medical supplies, would not have the raw materials that they need to manufacture these important items,” Waste Management Director of External Affairs Janette Micelli explained.

Thus, Waste Management is asking consumers to recycle more. And the Kent County Department of Public Works is asking consumers to hold on to their recyclables, and bring them to the county’s waste-to-energy facility. 

But how are consumers supposed to recycle more if recycling systems are being shut down? And is it really fair to place the burden of increased recycling on individuals now, when everything is so stressful?

Solutions hard to come by—at least for now

Public Works officials like Kent County’s Darwin Baas are not naive to the realities for families who are going to face difficult decisions about their own waste footprint in coming days and weeks. 

“At some point their recycling carts are going to be full and they have to make a decision,” Baas said. “But to the extent they can hang on to it, we encourage them to.”

While we are trying to hang on, there’s no doubt that it’s becoming harder the longer this goes on. We wish every community had a waste-to-energy plant like Kent County where our LaCroix boxes and extra take out plastic could create energy. And if you live near Kent County, Michigan, that’s a great option for your recyclables.

Keep in mind that recycling plants are closing to protect people - the same reasons we’re drinking so much sparkling water and stress eating. That’s why Enck wants to reiterate that safety for waste workers is paramount: "It is imperative that workers have protective gear and are provide with effective on the job protections,” she says. “36 states have designated waste as an essential service, and that should include recycling, not just collecting and then burying and burning solid waste.”

But also keep in mind that if we had a circular economy where we kept resources in use for as long as possible—instead of a linear one where we make, use and dispose of things as quickly as humanly possible—we wouldn’t be up against problems like these. Imagine if we had a system where we placed the burden of recycling on the producer, rather than the consumer. 

Just another fun activity to pass the time while you’re confined to your home, cleaning out your recycling bin.

OK, that’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED!

If you liked today’s issue, please feel free to forward it to a friend. If you are a paid subscriber and would like to post a comment, click the “view comments” button below:

View comments

If you’ve been forwarded this email, and you’d like to support the spread of independent climate journalism, become a subscriber today:

See you soon!