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Lessons from Republic & RRS on Operations During COVID-19

The National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) recently held a webinar on “Recycling Operations During COVID-19,” featuring a discussion with Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability at Republic Services and Michael Timpane, principal and vice president of process optimization and material recovery at Resource Recycling Systems (RRS).

Keller spoke about the “rapid, volatile, and variable” change that has stemmed from the COVID-19 pandemic. He discussed the confusion experienced within his company and the industry at large amid definitions of “essential work,” shifting knowledge about the virus itself, and conflicting guidance from multiple agencies. 

Keller went on to discuss some of the best practices that Republic has enacted over the past few months. He acknowledged that some of the realities of a recycling operation — such as workers in close proximity, common access points, time clocks, and safety meetings — present significant challenges to enacting social distancing. 

In order to make its facilities as safe as possible, Republic has taken measures including creating gaps between shifts, staggering employees’ breaks, having outdoor meetings where possible, and installing physical barriers like plexiglass. Keller also noted that the company has made considerations for minimizing transmission between infected employees and has instituted more frequent cleaning and sanitation.

As far as some of the impacts Republic has seen to its business, Keller said that “significant volume impacts in a short amount of time.” With shelter-in-place orders around the country, residential volume increases have included record amounts of aluminum, PET and glass. 

Both speakers addressed COVID-19-related contract implications and acknowledged that many negotiations will shift from face-to-face to virtual. The speakers encouraged listeners to pay special attention to changes in municipal budgets and how these are likely to affect haulers and recyclers. 

Timpane further addressed the topic of making decisions in volatility and asked, “Do you want to make a long-term deal that you’ll come to regret?” He observed that there are many unknowns at this point—for instance, “will there be mass inflation…or will there be significant deflation, and how do you know this year, and how do you know next year?” Liability is also uncertain in the current environment.

Timpane went on to point out that composition studies are now de rigueur in contracts, but “how do you do them during the time of COVID-19?” They tend to involve many people together for long periods of time, touching a lot of things…”It can be done safely, but how much can be done?” And, in a time of tight budgets, recycling education is often on the chopping block, which could lead to problems down the road. He offered reassurance that “successful deals are still happening out there” but encouraged listeners to be mindful of the myriad factors at play in the current environment. 

As for big-picture effects of the COVID-19 crisis on recycling programs, RRS’ data shows that 146 U.S. recycling programs were suspended due to COVID-19 (103 of the suspensions impacted curbside collection, 73 were drop-off closures, and 31 affected both types of programs). That represents approximately 87.6 thousand tons disrupted in less than three months across 35 states. Around 55 percent of these suspended programs have since resumed.

Timpane discussed the effects of COVID-19 on the evolving ton. He noted that the most significant effects are due to disposable paper demand, the curtailing of away-from-home activities, the use of the Internet for working at home and purchasing, etc., and food preference changes. 

Overall takeaways from the webinar were summed up by the following observations about recycling during the pandemic:

  • Operators have generally demonstrated the ability to keep front-line employees safe
  • Transmission through surface contact has not materialized
  • The vast majority of MRFs remained open during shelter-in-place orders
  • The industry needs to anticipate permanent changes in consumer behaviors
  • Recovery will be variable by segment
  • Commodities and supply chain were valued and shown to be critical during the disruptions
  • Storm clouds on the horizon include changes to municipal budgets, cancelled mill capacity and overall economic factors and recovery.

To view the recording of the webinar, click here

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