Sanitation workers across the U.S. are trying to adjust to unusually high residential waste levels as COVID-19 keeps many nonessential workers at home.
Garbage and other waste in residential areas has spiked by as much as 40 percent in some parts of the country.
Often overlooked and taken for granted, sanitation workers have become part of the front-line workforce keeping the country going even as the pandemic persists. These unsung heroes 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.
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.
The future is unclear in terms of when the coronavirus pandemic will subside 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.