Politics

Sanitation workers battle higher waste levels in residential areas as coronavirus outbreak persists

Key Points
  • Sanitation workers across the country are trying to adjust to unusually high waste levels in residential areas as the coronavirus pandemic shuts in nonessential workers at home. 
  • Garbage and other waste in residential areas has spiked by as much as 40% in some parts of the country.
  • Sanitation workers have become part of the front-line workforce keeping the country going even as the pandemic persists.
A New York City Department of Sanitation worker wearing a mask and gloves collects the trash amid the coronavirus pandemic on April 30, 2020 in New York City, United States.
Alexi Rosenfeld | Getty Images

Sanitation workers across the country are trying to adjust to unusually high waste levels in residential areas as the coronavirus pandemic shuts in much of the workforce at home. 

Waste in residential areas has spiked by as much as 40% in some parts of the country, according to one company's tally. To facilitate curbside pickup services, waste management companies are urging both their workers and clients to follow proper disposal protocols. 

To deal with the onslaught, some sanitation workers, who pick up and haul garbage and other waste, have begun to double or triple the number of trips they would make to residential neighborhoods under more normal circumstances. 

Often taken for granted, sanitation workers have become part of the frontline workforce keeping the country going even as the pandemic persists. And though they largely operate in the background of everyday life, they provide services that bolster comfortable living and cleanliness across the country. 

"You can go your whole life without ever calling upon a firefighter or a police officer, but you can't go more than a couple days without having a sanitation worker in your life," said Belinda Mager, the director of communications at New York's sanitation department. "They visit your block at least a couple days a week, and you may not even know it! But you'd know it if they were not there!"

Data collected in December from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that people who gather and dispose of waste and recyclable materials work the fifth most dangerous job in the United States. The coronavirus has heightened that risk factor. The pandemic adds to the inherent dangers of the job the risk of contracting the disease while handling waste with contaminated materials such as used tissues or face masks. 

This story is based on conversations with people linked to six waste removal groups in New York, California, Texas, Florida and Arizona, five states that represent some of the greatest risk zones for sanitation workers.

The risks

In an effort to minimize employees' risk of contracting the disease, several waste removal groups have been urging the public to dispose of their waste safely by "putting all trash in closed bags, carts or containers," said David Biderman, executive director and CEO of Solid Waste Association of North America, or SWANA, a nonprofit that advocates for efficient solid waste management. 

"We don't want sanitation collection workers touching discarded tissues or other material from a home in which someone has tested positive to coronavirus," Biderman said.

Some companies, such as Florida-based Waste Pro USA, have issued guidance on how to handle waste. The company created a flyer that educates "customers on how to properly dispose of their trash and recycling to protect themselves and our crews that is available to download on our website" said Ron Pecora, senior vice president of Waste Pro USA, which operates in 11 states. 

Increased safety protocols have also extended to the companies themselves. Sanitation workers have received gloves, masks, and disinfecting products from their employers to maximize their own safety. And they're encouraged to practice social distancing while collecting trash. 

"Traditionally everyone always wore gloves. But now everyone wears a thinner latex glove on the inside, in addition to a thick glove on the outside," said Josh Eisenstein, director of community outreach at Filco Carting, a Brooklyn, New York, waste management company.

Sanitation workers clean and disinfect the streets of Skidrow during the coronavirus pandemic on April 20, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.
Tommaso Boddi | Getty Images

Trucks are cleaned and disinfected frequently, said a spokesperson from Republic Services, an Arizona-based waste collection company operating in 41 states and Puerto Rico. 

"All of our facilities and equipment are on an enhanced cleaning schedule, with cleanings scheduled multiple times per day," the spokesperson said. 

In Arizona, the new safety protocols have extended into processing centers, too, where employees are separated by "plastic protective barriers to help keep them safe."

SWANA estimates that nearly 1,000 sanitation workers have tested positive for the coronavirus around the country, "the majority of them in the New York City metropolitan area," Biderman said. But it's likely that these workers contracted the virus because of "community spread, not contact with the trash," he added. 

Spikes in residential waste

Waste among residential homes has increased as most Americans stay at home under shelter-in-place orders.

"Residential waste volume has increased between 5% to 35%, depending on the location, as Americans have been staying home and generating more trash and recyclables," Biderman said.

At Waste Management, headquartered in Texas, residential waste went up by 25%, according to Janette Micelli, director of external affairs. 

To keep up with the unexpected volume of waste, several sanitation companies have suspended bulk pick-up services, meaning that sanitation workers temporarily avoid picking up large materials like tossed-out furniture.

About 80 communities nationwide have reported temporary suspensions in curbside recycling or yard waste collection, according to estimates from SWANA.

"This was because these communities' sanitation departments have limited bandwidth and resources, and need to use their assets (trucks, people) to collect trash," Biderman explained. Some communities have begun to resume these services.

In Southern California, sanitation workers have shut down some recycling facilities due to inability to keep adequate distance between workers, causing some curbside recyclables to end up in the landfill. 

Meanwhile, some companies have altered their schedules to keep up with the increased need for waste removal. 

Shelter-in-place guidelines have caused Americans to be "thrown off their routine," said Pecora of Waste Pro USA, which has seen a 40% increase in residential waste in some areas.

"Rather than placing their materials out before going to work, they have been placing their materials out after our trucks have serviced their streets, resulting in a spike in calls concerning missed pickups," Pecora said. 

Additionally, Waste Pro USA workers have been reporting higher numbers of "bulk items," including old televisions and mattresses, in Florida. It is an indication that many Americans are using the time at home to do some heavy-duty spring cleaning. 

"This huge volume has resulted in significant increased expense as trucks are filling up and have to dispose, and then go back to same routes to complete," Pecora said. 

Commercial waste falls 

As residential waste rises, commercial waste is in a state of free fall, tumbling because of closures of nonessential businesses and stay-at-home guidelines. 

The biggest blow to commercial waste occurred "in major cities," according to SWANA's Biderman.

Filco Carting in Brooklyn has seen commercial waste drop by 50% since the pandemic hit. 

Commercial waste removal from places like restaurants and small businesses can only be handled by privately owned waste removal companies in New York.

Once New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued orders of statewide shutdowns, business at New York waste removal companies began to drop off. 

"Most private carters are operating with less trucks, as many customers are not operating, not producing waste and therefore less trucks are needed to collect the reduced waste," said Eisenstein of Filco. 

And businesses that have stayed open to offer essential services, like supermarkets, have reduced their waste, Eisenstein said, likely because fewer customers have been entering. 

Some of these businesses "requested reduction in their frequency of pickups. Weeks ago when businesses were forced to close, many reached out to us to suspend service," he said.

Going forward

There is no consensus on what the future holds in terms of when the coronavirus pandemic will die out or whether these changes will stick around in the sanitation industry. 

Some waste removal companies told CNBC they believe the country has already hit its peak, adding that they expect residential volumes to decrease and commercial volumes to rise going forward. 

"In the last couple of weeks, we've begun to see customers reengage with us as they plan to reopen their businesses," a spokesperson for Republic Services said. "Assuming these trends continue, we believe the worst is behind us and volumes will sequentially improve from here."

For Eisenstein of Filco Carting, the worry is that commercial waste will continue to suffer even as New York businesses open up. He is anticipating a "slow start" once businesses resume operations because "employees may not want to come back" and "no one wants to be confined right now even though we're all usually like tuna fish in a can in the subway." 

"Just because they're open, they may not be at full capacity and may not be producing as much waste," he said, predicting that commercial waste pickup might turn into "an on-call type of service" in the months coming up. 

Other waste removal companies are planning to institute more permanent changes based on the adjustments forced on by the pandemic. 

Pecora of Waste Pro USA, for example, said the company will continue to keep stock of "increased supplies of PPE and sanitizing equipment that will be readily available in a moment's notice." Additionally, it's possible that some people like "IT teams, HR and Communications" might work from home more regularly in the future. 

Still, there's a lot of uncertainty. Hurricane season is approaching, and it's unclear how it will play out along with the pandemic.

Pecora said Waste Pro USA anticipates "a spike in yard waste collection" once hurricane season comes around in Florida. "Thousands of our 11 state customers are preparing for hurricane season, which is forecasted to be severe this year," he said.