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The latest coronavirus side effect: Lots more curbside trash, but less recycling

Stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus pandemic have caused a wave of impacts through the waste and recycling industry, prompting a spike in curbside trash and other issues.

Bags of garbage sit along the street before being picked up in Philadelphia's Ogontz section earlier this month. Households are generating more trash as people stay home during the coronavirus pandemic.
Bags of garbage sit along the street before being picked up in Philadelphia's Ogontz section earlier this month. Households are generating more trash as people stay home during the coronavirus pandemic.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

The stay-at-home orders and business closures to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic have prompted a big spike in curbside trash, leaving a major hauler to threaten to raise rates. At the same time, bottlers can’t get enough recycled glass for their operations.

In Philadelphia, residential trash has jumped by nearly one-quarter during March and April, compared with the same period last year. That meant the city had to collect 22,000 tons of extra trash in that period, with more undoubtedly to come.

“With more residents generating trash at home, and residents having more time to spring clean or work on in-home projects, we anticipated our tonnage would increase,” said Keisha McCarty-Skelton, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Streets Department.

Scott McGrath, the city’s environmental services director, said the department budget should be able to handle the extra load.

Philadelphia municipal workers pick up trash in city-owned trucks, then haul it to transfer sites. There it is disposed of by Waste Management, one of the nation’s largest hauling and recycling firms. The waste is taken to landfills or incinerated at a waste-to-energy facility.

McGrath said that the work crews are flexible, and that the trucks have enough capacity, to avoid a lot of extra runs. He said crews get shifted every day from areas with lighter-than-usual curbside loads to handle bigger loads.

The city has a long-term contract with Waste Management and pays about $65 a ton for disposal. But McGrath said it’s too soon to tell how increased tonnage now will affect the budget in coming months.

“Earlier this year, we were probably about the same or below prior years," McGrath said. “We might end up on the high side this year, but it’s not going to be a huge number.”

But Waste Management, which has contracts throughout the Philadelphia region, including South Jersey, says it’s feeling the strain of higher disposal costs. Some of its customers pay a flat fee no matter how much trash they generate, others pay by the ton, and some pay for both collection and disposal.

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The company’s finance chief, Devina Rankin, told the Wall Street Journal this week that Waste Management wants to charge cities and towns more to pick up their trash and recyclables because more home waste is being generated and costing the company more to dispose of as a result.

The Houston-based company has lost $40 million in the first quarter of the year, according to the Wall Street Journal.

John Hambrose, a spokesperson for Waste Management in the Philadelphia region, said residential waste and recycling have increased by as much as 25% since states issued stay-at-home orders.

“We’ve started to see a leveling off but expect elevated waste volumes at the curb to persist as residents continue to work from home, and businesses are reopening in phased approaches,” Hambrose said.

Neither Philadelphia nor several other local municipalities that use Waste Management, including Camden, say they have been approached to renegotiate contracts.

Stephanie Teoli Kuhls, manager for Middletown Township in Bucks County, said in an email that the township is in the first year of a four-year agreement with Waste Management to pick up residential trash, recycling, yard waste and bulk waste. The 2020 cost is a flat $4.6 million — about $400 a household — and does not change based on tonnage.

“We are confident that our contract language does not allow for a renegotiation,” Teoli Kuhls wrote in an email.

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Vince Basara, a spokesperson for Camden, said the city is in the middle of a three-year, per-ton contract with Waste Management to collect and dispose of trash. But Camden has not seen much of a rise in curbside trash.

“We haven’t seen a direct impact at this point,” Basara said, noting that the city stresses recycling to keep trash out of landfills and incinerators.

Yet recycling, too, has felt the strain of the pandemic — think of all the beer and wine bottles that aren’t coming from restaurants and bars — that comes on top of existing glass shortages.

That’s according to O-I Glass, which says it is the largest manufacturer of glass containers in the world with operations in the U.S. (including Pennsylvania and New Jersey) and 22 other countries.

Supplies of recycled glass were down 38% in April in eastern Pennsylvania, and down 62% in New York and New Jersey, the company said, creating a problem for the company to supply bottles for pharmaceutical companies and the food and beverage industry, for example.

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Jim Nordmeyer, the company’s vice president for sustainability, said Philadelphia is a bright spot, with just a 20% drop in glass recycling. He credits the city for maintaining a strong recycling program when other municipalities have fallen off.

However, the overall picture is bleak.

Creating glass from scratch is a poor choice environmentally and economically because it requires mining and increased energy use, Nordmeyer explained.

Recycling was already in decline after China began rejecting plastics in 2018, leading to the demise of numerous recycling programs. Because glass is mixed in with plastic in most municipal programs, it too was eliminated from the recycling stream even though there is continued demand.

Then came the coronavirus business shutdowns, ending a huge source of bottles. In addition, residents have been using fewer bottles because they aren’t leaving home as much to shop.

But if you do have glass, Nordmeyer adds another reason to recycle.

“At our facilities in Pennsylvania, glass is a perfect partner for a circular economy," he said. “It supplies Yuengling, the oldest brewery in America, and all the bottles there are 100% recycled. So the material is staying local. A good portion of what Philadelphia recycles ends up back as a new Yuengling container.”