Sustainability

Trash on the rise

The dangers of plastic and other trash to the environment haven’t magically gone away—in some cases, the problem is worse

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 7/15/20

You’ve probably seen it, drifting gently on the breeze: COVID trash.

There’s the PPE, abandoned, maybe because people were worried about bringing it home and putting it in their …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in
Sustainability

Trash on the rise

The dangers of plastic and other trash to the environment haven’t magically gone away—in some cases, the problem is worse

Posted

You’ve probably seen it, drifting gently on the breeze: COVID trash.

There’s the PPE, abandoned, maybe because people were worried about bringing it home and putting it in their garbage.

And there’s the trash that we’ve piled up during lockdown.

Anecdotes abound about the discarded masks and gloves, all made of plastic. Local people on social media post pictures of it. The Ocean Conservancy says, “Reports are coming in from around the world of massive amounts of personal protective equipment like masks and gloves clogging sidewalk drains and washing into waterways.”

Sullivan County’s recycling coordinator, Bill Cutler, saw “masks and gloves discarded inappropriately in some cases in the community,” but added that it’s hard to quantify. He’s right. People don’t count the litter, they shake their heads and walk on, or they (carefully, with appropriate precautions) pick it up.

There’s irony here, especially in New York, where a plastic bag ban went into effect before the virus hit.

To add to the concern, an April 16 letter, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, notes a study that showed “SARS-CoV-2 was more stable on plastic and stainless steel than on copper and cardboard; viable virus was detected up to 72 hours after application to these surfaces... although the virus titer was greatly reduced (from 103.7 to 100.6 TCID50 per milliliter of medium after 72 hours on plastic and from 103.7 to 100.6 TCID50 per milliliter after 48 hours on stainless steel).”

Of course, research is ongoing. Tune in tomorrow and the numbers might be different as we learn more.

But we know this: even if people brought their plastic stuff home to throw out, it would have joined an ever-growing pile of household trash.

During lockdown, we were trapped at home. We might have cleaned out the closets, the attic, the basement. We cooked at home. We made trash. Even after lockdown, we continue to spend more time at home than any other typical summer.

Cutler demonstrated the change by comparing March-May trash transactions in 2019 versus 2020.

Outbound waste tonnage for Sullivan County from March to May in 2019 was 16,285 tons versus 14,209 tons through the same period in 2020, a difference of –2,076 tons, Cutler explained in an email. So, a decrease in overall trash, which includes business waste.

 In Sullivan County, you can haul your own trash but you pay for it with coupons.

“We have seen a sizeable, anecdotal increase in “first-timer” foot traffic at the Scale House, resulting in sales of more coupon books as folks self-hauled materials to our stations during NYS Pause,” Cutler wrote. He informed of the numbers: March to May in 2019, there were 6,316 coupon books sold, equaling $111,110 in revenue. Through that same period in 2020, there were 8,272 coupon books sold, equaling $150,120 in revenue. “Period over date, book sales increased by 1,956 units and revenue increased by $39,010.”

Meanwhile, single-stream recycling increased by 64 tons from March to May (626 tons in 2020 versus 562 in 2019): Outbound source-separated cardboard (106 tons in 2019, 138 tons in 2020), newsprint (21 tons in 2019, 20 tons in 2020) and mixed paper (40 tons in 2019, 42 tons in 2020) show combined paper increases as well.

 So, we recycled a lot more cardboard. All those Amazon/Walmart/fill-in-the-blank boxes, maybe.

“There are caveats in these details; for instance municipal cleanups (zero-charge tonnage) were postponed in some cases... resulting in a tonnage/revenue shift to a post-May timeframe in 2020, skewing results slightly for the period,” Cutler cautioned.

 In addition, “the Village of Monticello suspended residential recycling collection in March, which may have further depressed 2020 Recycling data, especially [single-stream recycling].”

 So what about Pennsylvania, where recycling was closed for COVID-related
reasons?

 John Hambrose, the communications manager for Waste Management in the greater mid-Atlantic area in Taylor, PA, said in an interview, “We are seeing as much as a 25 percent increase in household waste” although “my guess is that it’s come down a bit.”

 The company, the nation’s dominant trash company, has seen a “steep drop in commercial waste and an increase in residential,” said Hambrose. In other words, we’re not at work, so we’re throwing stuff out at home.

“Those figures are good locally and across the country,” he said.

Who knows how many of those bags were filled with recycling?

Yes, we were trying to reduce the world’s trash burden before the pandemic, and it may have laid bare how fragile our system was, relying on everything staying open, on people going out, on PPE staying in the medical world.

But, as the Ocean Conservancy says, “When we are on the other side of this crisis, we will get back to work building the systems that keep both humans and our ocean healthy.”

coronavirus, trash

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment