Covid-19: keeping waste and recycling collections running in difficult times

24 April 2020

Local authorities and their contractors have risen to the challenge of managing waste in these difficult times and are doing a great job of maintaining services.

At Resource Futures we’ve been keeping up to speed with the quickly changing waste management world. We sit on a national advisory board and take part in industry webinars, so that we can usefully contribute to help keep services running as safely as possible, to keep materials flowing through the system and to keep the economy circular.

In thinking about collections of recyclables and waste from domestic properties, we’ve come up with five key areas where authorities and their contractors are having to work hard to balance priorities and look at the knock-on effects of their decisions throughout the material management chain. The big questions to consider are:

  • How do you protect your staff against the risks of Coronavirus?
  • How do you manage changes in staffing levels that might result?
  • How do you keep collections services operating?
  • How do you manage the Coronavirus risk at tipping points (recycling facilities like MRFs, energy-from-waste facilities, landfills, etc)?
  • How do you communicate effectively on the issue of Coronavirus?

We will explore these questions below. We hope that domestic recycling and waste collections teams will find this useful, and we would welcome your feedback to keep our support as relevant and helpful as possible in this fast-changing situation.

You can also download our visual ‘mindmap’: Covid 19 – Keeping waste and recycling services running in difficult times. You may find this helpful for internal communication.

Pinch points

Protecting staff within collection services, through social distancing and other measures, is not simple. There are many pinch points:

At the depot:

  • Collecting personal protective equipment (PPE) and any daily instructions.
  • Collecting, re-fuelling the vehicle and other vehicle checks.
  • Using the staff room or changing room.
  • Using welfare facilities.

On the rounds:

  • Crews in the cabs – so many are more than a driver plus one – how will the round be delivered with fewer staff?
  • Waste and recyclables delivery points, weighbridges and tip-off locations.

There are obvious pinch points at treatment facilities too, particularly where there is a lot of manual handling, such as MRF picking belts.

For many of these pinch points it’s essential to carefully consider how to maintain social distancing and how to thoroughly sanitise all parts of buildings and vehicles that staff come into contact with.

Managing teams and shared spaces safely

At the depot, contact between crews can be minimised by having staggered start times. PPE can be issued carefully, maintaining the two-metre rule. Returned PPE should be kept separate from new PPE so it can then be sanitised or washed daily. If possible, it would be better for crews not to travel home in their work trousers and tops, but instead to leave them at work (with more laundering done there if possible). Any kit taken home should be carried in a sealed bag and washed more frequently. If possible, more sets of work clothes should be issued to allow for more frequent washing.

Managers will need to carefully consider use of the canteen or staff room, and how to ensure that staff can maintain distance from others. All door handles and other surfaces that staff regularly touch will need to be frequently sanitised.

Some examples of social distancing for crews, or, at the very least, minimising potential exposure to Covid-19, include:

  • Keeping crews the same, not rotating staff – each crew is in effect a “family unit”.
  • Loaders joining rounds separately, and perhaps working ahead of the vehicle, to pull out and position bins ready for collection, with another crew member returning them to position following collection.
  • Provision of sanitary wipes and hand-sanitisers for each crew – that are kept regularly topped up, with a schedule for each crew as a reminder of what to regularly clean, both during the shifts and at the end of each day.

At MRFs it might be possible to slow the picking-belt down, so that fewer staff are needed within a confined space. Staff will be routinely wearing masks in any case but using different shift patterns will also help reduce contact between staff.

As in depots and with crews, welfare facilities and other contact points need to be kept very clean and sanitised to minimise exposure.

Difficult decisions: suspending services

Along with protecting staff there are knock-on effects of potential staff shortages. If staff cannot be redeployed from other services, such as grounds maintenance or cleansing, or commercial waste collections, then authorities do have to make decisions about which collections they might have to suspend.

Whilst thinking about suspension, it is important to consider how the service can be sensibly re-introduced when the time comes. So, it might seem easier to suspend a recycling service, for example, but reintroducing that service might prove more difficult. If people get out of the recycling habit, how easy will it be to get them back on board?

“Residual waste” is called that for a reason. It is the bit left over when all the good stuff has been separated out for recycling, composting, reprocessing or reusing. With more people working from home than ever there is more recyclable waste being produced, and potentially more time for people to engage with recycling messages. There has been a notable increase in internet traffic about food and food waste for instance. Turning off recycling collections could have a dramatic impact:

  • How will the material be collected and where will it go?
  • Is there capacity in the bins, vehicles and depots?
  • What income will be lost from not selling the recyclables?
  • What additional handling and gate fees might be incurred?
  • Impacts throughout the processing industry could include lack of income and business viability – perhaps only in the short-term, but it could be severe.
  • Shortages of materials in the supply chain – for example, could we see a shortage of cardboard for packaging due to lack of material throughout the chain?


Across all these issues local authorities and their contractors have to effectively communicate with their staff, their contractors, their elected members and their residents. This is not easy when the situation is changing daily.

Download our visual ’mindmap’: Covid 19 – Keeping waste and recycling services running in difficult times.

If you have any feedback or want to discuss any challenges you’re having with recycling and waste collections please do get in touch.