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COVID-19's impact on recycling

Kellie Ballew, director of sustainability, looks at how COVID-19 is impacting recycling

Kellie Ballew

Director of Sustainability

In the wake of COVID-19, you may have noticed that municipal recycling has been discontinued or scaled back in many areas of the country.  Just like virtually all aspects of our daily lives, COVID-19 has had an impact on recycling.

Waste management and recycling companies have faced added safety protocols and reduced schedules to help prevent their employees from being exposed to virus-laden items or to allow them the flexibility to care for themselves and their families. Residential waste volumes have increased with many working and schooling from home or otherwise self isolating.  Unexpected and extra time at home also have often resulted in some major “spring cleaning” or home renovation projects that produce larger than usual volumes of waste and recycling. 

In the midst of this, waste management companies have had to prioritize what items they collect in some instances, with recycled goods often being less accepted or unfortunately not at all. As businesses, schools, hotels, restaurants and many others experienced temporary shutdowns or volumes remained low, there has been a significant reduction in the amount of industrial and commercial waste that underpins much of the recycling supply chain. And as manufacturers slowed down or experienced temporary closures there may have been fewer outlets for what was being collected.

Earlier this year, I  interviewed  Dr. Jason Locklin, director of the New Materials Institute at the University of Georgia, on SustainableBrands.com about the institute’s work with industry, businesses, governments, foundations and others to design materials and systems that promote circularity in materials management. As we all strive to determine what the next normal might look like, there are a host of unforeseen questions about how COVID-19 will impact the recycling supply chain -- short term and long term. The institute’s data-driven approach will undoubtedly bring us much-needed perspective to solve today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.