In an op-ed in Bloomberg, Adam Minter, a notable recycling journalist and author, writes about how COVID-19 poses several unique challenges for the U.S. waste collection and disposal industry and the 467,000 workers employed by it.
Minter compares the current health crisis to the 1918 flu pandemic. Above all, he says, COVID-19 is likely to generate a surge in solid medical waste such as used surgical masks and empty IV bags. He adds that large-scale home quarantining, combined with large numbers of asymptomatic individuals, means that at least some of the medical waste generated in the U.S. (including all those masks) will be in home and office garbage and recycling bins.
“Nobody knows how much of a risk COVID-19 waste poses to sanitation workers. But it could be substantial: The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases reported last week that COVID-19 can remain infectious in aerosols for hours and on surfaces for days,” writes Minter.
Bloomberg has more:
The U.S. is unlikely to see a trash crisis like the one in 1918, but better safety guidelines and protective gear are needed to maintain collection.
No class of Americans was spared during the 1918 flu pandemic, including the garbage men. In San Francisco, illness rapidly thinned their ranks, and trash piled up in streets and backyards, leaving the city little choice but to cover it with dirt. In Kansas City, Missouri, medical waste was tossed atop the household waste already piling up in public spaces, creating new hazards for the diminishing numbers of people employed to collect it, and those who lived, worked and played in the city. And in Baltimore, at least a quarter of the city’s sanitation workers didn’t report for duty at the peak of the pandemic, with predictably dirty and dangerous results.