How COVID-19 Has Affected Waste Across the Globe

Liz Bothwell, Head of Content & Marketing

May 26, 2020

6 Min Read

Changes in human behavior directly affect waste patterns and there is nothing like a global pandemic to test that theory. These fluctuations in waste can wreak havoc for waste collectors, but having data to direct operational resources is key to managing these fluctuations with maximum efficiency and quality. 

With that in mind, we reached out to one of Waste360’s 40 Under 40 winners, Geoffrey Aardsma, VP of client services at Enevo. Enevo works with its customers to transform the financial, environmental and social impact of waste. Aardsma and his team are charged with delivering value by combining groundbreaking data analytics with deep industry knowledge. 

Here are some insights into a recent Enevo report that looked at a number of ways the COVID-19 safety protocols have affected waste across the globe. They looked at three of their waste generators that span geography and sector, including: 

  1. A major European smart city

  2. A chain of convenience stores in the American northeast

  3. And a top university in Texas.

Enevo compared their waste from March and April 2019 to the same timing in 2020. Here’s a deeper dive into the results.

Waste360: What has surprised you the most about the waste behavioral changes you’ve tracked?

There hasn’t been a uniform response to the pandemic across sectors. Each container we monitor has demonstrated a unique response. We’ve had a restaurant client return their sales to pre-quarantine numbers through takeout only -- so they’ve had higher waste production than other restaurants we monitor. Even amongst our neighborhood containers, some produce more than others. Individual container insight has been crucial for our customers when adjusting schedules and routes. 

Waste360: With the smart city example, what specific changes were made as a result of your data?

The European smart city has had to add more trucks to service communal containers as a result of the increase in residential waste. Data insight created a targeted response in increased resources and prevented an overcorrection. The city was able to commit the exact number of required resources.

With a quarantine restriction in play and more trucks and staff hired, the smart city employed more stringent safety protocols. Our tech eliminates unnecessary collections so we can reduce opportunities for exposure. Additionally, with automatically optimized schedules and routes, they aren’t rushed and can take the time to conduct collections as safely as possible. 

City Waste

Waste360: Do more routes and pickups present challenges if the city is densely constructed and populated, with narrow streets?

Every route has challenges, data helps users navigate them. There’s currently less traffic on the roads, but other factors are playing a bigger role: more collections, weight-based restrictions, time-based restrictions, and minimum frequencies. Our tech automatically responds to these restrictions while creating an appropriate collection schedule and route, so our haulers have been able to adjust accordingly -- in European alleyways or rural America.

Waste360: Are you seeing differences between American behavior and European?

In Europe, many larger cities use communal containers (typically just a block away) where people can collectively bring their waste and source separate their recyclables. These containers can be either large side- or rear-loading containers, up to 3.2m² in size or even larger semi- or fully underground containers, up to 5-6m².

These units are easier to track and plan for collections than the common residential cart systems common in the U.S. With a higher capacity, there is more natural compaction and therefore less rapid fill than the smaller capacity carts. 

We see trends that are consistent across European and American waste generation. A shift in waste generation from commercial to residential presents collectors with the challenge of how to also adjust their resources to match the demand.

Waste360: What were the biggest changes with the convenience store?

The convenience store subscribes to scheduled weekly collections based on their unique waste trends. As the weather warmed, they were preparing for the expected seasonal increase we’d detected years past. Instead, they had to plan a decrease in service due to the COVID-19 safety measures. 

We had never seen a pandemic, so it was difficult to anticipate exactly how many collections were still necessary. The convenience store relied solely on our automated schedule optimization tool, which allowed them to analyze trends during the early weeks of the safety measures and quickly adjust services.

Convenience Store Waste

Waste360: What were the biggest changes with the university?

The university uses the Enevo system to execute their on-campus collections, so they’ve reduced collections in line with reductions in generation. This has allowed them to dedicate resources to other campus needs, like increased cleaning and safety protocols.

University Waste

Waste360: Getting any sense if the waste being generated is bulkier? Heavier?

We have not seen or heard any of the haulers report any major shifts in average weight.

Waste360: Generally, residential has been up and commercial has been down for the past couple of months. Is that what you are seeing and is the trash taking up less space?

Our waste data is measured in volume. As we track fluctuations in waste, it’s in terms of space in the container. Our sensor can measure waste in 130+ container types, so it’s difficult to generalize volume across containers (especially with so many current extraneous variables). What we are seeing is an increase in residential waste volumes and a decrease in commercial volumes.

Waste360: What’s been the biggest efficiency change?

The biggest efficiency change for Enevo haulers has been in resourcing their operations given the shift in waste volumes and increased safety protocols leaving less time per route for collections. 

Waste data has been crucial in matching generator behavior. We’ve been able to adjust accurately and have the ability to re-adjust very quickly based on true needs.

Waste360: Is weather any significant variable in the comparisons?

It’s harder to measure the current impact of weather with so many other outstanding variables. Currently, we only track year-over-year waste trends. Our sensors do measure temperature, but we haven’t yet normalized the data for weather patterns. However, we know that weather has a significant impact on waste generation (both commercial and residential) as it drives consumer behavior. We are working on these analytics as part of our product roadmap.

Waste360: Are you tracking recycling bins as well? Are people recycling a larger or smaller percentage than before?  And if so, what does that look like?

We’re seeing a general increase in residential waste and recycling.

There hasn’t really been an uniform recycling response, but we have noticed considerable upticks in certain areas. In a few of our community multi-source recycling bins, glass bottles and cans are significantly higher. This indicates a possible increase in beverage consumption in particular.

Waste360: Will you continue to monitor this and report back?

Always. We have 40,000 active sensors collecting data in real time for our customers. They use the data to tackle their services in the most efficient and sustainable manner possible. Our broader data insights are a happy side effect. We have billions of data points, so we’re always eager to share. Waste behavior is human behavior. 

About the Author(s)

Liz Bothwell

Head of Content & Marketing, Waste360

Liz Bothwell is head of content and marketing for Waste360, proud host of the NothingWasted! Podcast, and ghostwrites for others to keep her skills sharp and creative juices flowing. She loves family, football, her French bulldogs, and telling stories that can help to make the world a more sustainable place.

Follow her on Linkedin or Twitter

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