New sorting technology can help overcome recycling business disruptions

New sorting technology can…

The rapidly evolving effects from the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, global pandemic has governments and companies enacting unprecedented measures to protect the lives and livelihoods of the populace. Emergency social distancing and quarantine orders to flatten the curve of transmission rates have been enacted globally. 

Students are remotely learning as schools close to stem the spread of the virus. The “non-essential” workforceis recommended, ordered in some cases, to stay from home, using technology to work remotely. Meanwhile, some essential services workersare receiving increases to their hourly rates as hazard pay. 

Recycling industry feels the pinch

Deemed essential services in many countries, the waste and recycling industries face virus-related impacts, as collection services and practices are being altered to protect workers. Receiving recyclable materials has a high rate of interaction with the public, and the recycling process often involves close worker interaction. 

As a result, many locations around the world have temporarily halted collection of a portion or all recyclable materials. In the United States, Michigan and South Carolina facilities have halted the collection of recycle materials placed curbside, turning to landfilling instead. In the United Kingdom, where recycling centers are not considered “essential,” some councils have reduced bin collection services, while others have closed recycling entirely to prevent close contact among people and possibly spreading the virus. 

To mitigate the inherent risks associated with coronavirus, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued the general safe practices guidelines of frequent handwashing with soap and water, use of hand sanitizer, avoid touching the face with unwashed hands and avoid close contact with those who are sick. At the time of writing, OHSA recommended that waste agencies handle solid waste with potential or known COVID-19 contamination like any other non-contaminated waste – use typical engineering and administration controls, safe work practices and personal protective equipment (PPE), such as puncture-resistant gloves and face and eye protection, to prevent worker exposure to the waste and recycle materials managed. 

To minimize worker interaction, recycling companies are adjusting business practices, such as moving to staggered collection shifts, to prevent virus exposure. Manual sorter repositioning and staggered breaks have been implemented for social distancing. Where sorter repositioning is not possible, temporary barriers between workers are being placed where advance safety. 

Strain on supply

Consumer buying and recycling habits in Europe have seen a spike in virgin PET demand, combined with decrease return rates, taxing the recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) market, the most widely recycled plastic in Europe. French recycling operations anticipate reduced collection rates for polyethylene and polypropylene as well, at a time when the market typically sees the start of peak season for rPET and recycled polyolefins. 

A vast majority of U.S. states with bill deposit programs have suspended enforcement, limiting the returns of aluminum cans as well as glass and plastic bottles. Still other states have stopped drop-off programs at recycling facilities and reduced facility operating hour reductions to combat the virus.