Iain Gulland, Chief Executive of Zero Waste Scotland, writes on why we all need to celebrate and support our binmen and binwomen in their vital role as resource managers on the frontline during the Covid-19 outbreak.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, waste for many people was largely out of sight and out of mind. The people emptying our bins are typically as invisible to the public as the waste and recycling itself.
Now our binmen and binwomen – and everyone else who handles all our waste and recycling – are getting some long-overdue praise and recognition for the vital work they do keeping our nation going.
They deserve just as much applause in the weekly cheering which now fills our otherwise subdued streets as all the others on the frontline in this crisis – from the doctors and nurses in our hospitals to the carers in our homes and the cashiers and shelf stackers in our supermarkets.
Unlike all of those other workers, refuse collectors are rarely people we see to speak to, often we just hear the distinctive sound of the waste lorries without giving a thought to how important they are for our health and wellbeing as well as to our economy.
The term binman does not come close to doing justice to what the job is really about, especially now that we have all fully embraced a more resource-focused approach to our waste which favours reuse and recycling over landfill. Like farmers and fishermen, refuse collectors are skilled resource managers, out in all weathers harvesting materials for the growing circular supply chain which feeds the national and global economy.
Life in lockdown is bringing all kinds of changes which few, if any, of us ever expected to experience.
We all understandably have our own fears and stresses as we try to process and adjust to the new reality of workplaces and schools closing down nationwide. But waste collections and the staff who carry them out are going through serious changes and challenges too on our behalf.
As we continue to prioritise our efforts on overcoming the public health crisis, it’s more important than ever that we all do everything we can to manage waste so we don’t make the current crisis any worse.
Clapping is great for morale, and as I said before, welcome recognition of worth which has been a long time coming. By far the most valuable thing anyone can do to show their appreciation and help the refuse collectors on the frontline, however, is to produce as little waste as possible.
Recycling and other waste collection services across Scotland and the rest of the UK have had to be temporarily cut back or suspended. This has been necessary to deal with the impact of staff shortages through sickness and the need to prioritise and protect the health of workers and public alike in line with government guidance on implementing social isolation measures.
Waste poses a serious risk to both public and environmental health in normal times if it is allowed to pile up and not treated properly, as councils and waste management firms will know all too well.
To help mitigate these risks Zero Waste Scotland – along with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and the Scottish Government – is launching a new campaign to let householders across Scotland know about changes to their waste collections so they can dispose of their waste as safely as possible.
Much of this campaign builds on our existing work with local authorities here, helping them to provide the simplest, most effective recycling services. We are giving householders practical advice on how they can reduce their waste, including simple tips on planning meals and making better use of storage to reduce food waste – through our successful, long-established Love Food Hate Waste programme.
Other tips on our website include ways to compost garden waste which, like our other general advice in the campaign, can also help householders and waste management staff UK-wide.
We are reinforcing the government’s lifesaving public health message that anyone with symptoms of coronavirus should follow government advice on securely storing and disposing of personal waste to help keep themselves and waste management workers safe. For any households where anyone is showing symptoms of the disease, this means they must make sure that any waste product they have come into contact with, like tissues or disposable items such as bottles and cloths, is double-bagged and stored at home for 72 hours before being put out in their general waste bin for collection.
Unfortunately, we have already seen a rise in flytipping around the country north and south of the border which is likely to have been caused by the rise in DIY projects and clearouts as many people use lockdown as a chance to make some home improvements. I recently signed a joint letter from the Scottish Partnership Against Rural Crime on behalf of organisations as diverse as our own, the national farmers’ union and Police Scotland urging people to keep any unwanted things at home or in their gardens until recycling centres and collections by councils, private contractors and charities are operational once more. The aim was to remind people that you need their support too, and that they have a choice. Either they can be selfish, as some have sadly demonstrated, or they can help to reduce pressure on already-stretched services and businesses, from waste collections to police patrols and farmers working to supply the nation with food. We reminded people not to be tempted by anyone offering to dispose of items cheaply, as that’s likely to result in those goods being flytipped – which is costly to offenders, councils, landowners and ultimately all of us.
The public is also being urged not to leave unwanted clothes outside charity shops with Zero Waste Scotland’s Revolve quality guarantee while they are closed during lockdown as these donations may be damaged by bad weather which means they can’t be resold, and charities often have to pay to get rid of them.
The tip in our campaign which is perhaps easiest to remember and follow is to ‘wash and squash’ tins and plastic, and flatten cardboard so people can keep on recycling by storing what they have for longer at home until services are back up and running. That may sound insignificant given the overwhelming scale of the crisis, but as the response to the pandemic has shown in many ways, we can all help and there is real strength in numbers.
The more people we reach with the current public health message on waste, the more we can ease the pressure on staff and services to manage the pandemic and recover as quickly as possible.
Like the curve in cases of the disease itself which NHS workers on the frontline in healthcare are working so hard to flatten, every employee working in recycling and street collections is battling against the risk of a mountain of waste. We all need to do what we can to flatten that too.
We will get through this by continuing to work together to deal with the challenges and changes which coronavirus brings.
As we reach that goal our campaign will also help councils let the public know when recycling and collection services are fully operational again to help people make the most use of them in future.
Until the coronavirus crisis is over there is another question which will be on all our minds:
When will lockdown end?
When can we see the friends, family and places we’ve been unable to visit for so long?
In the meantime, I hope the value we have all noticed in the everyday things and people we rarely give a thought to does not go to waste.